I was surprised by Caligari. The “twist ending” seems a far more contemporary ruse. What are the first pieces of literature/film that fool us until the moment of revelation? Do they predate this film? I mean, 19th-century American literature is full of supposed surprise endings (What?? Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father??) but we figure things out long before we’re given the official reveal. As one of my students once said, the stories from that time period are foreshadowed to an annoying extent, but it’s clear that we aren’t meant to figure out the endings before the characters. Why is another matter.
I was also surprised by the use of an unreliable narrator. Of course, they’ve been around for ages, too–I immediately think of Poe’s murderers—but I’m wondering when exactly we start getting unreliable narrators who fool even us, the readers/viewers, until the very end.
So, a couple things. As the film ends, we realize that Francis is insane, that he believes the director of the insane asylum in which he is housed is Dr. Caligari or a close enough substitute, that he believes another inmate Jane to be his fiancee, and that yet he thinks another inmate, Cesare, is the somnambulist that the supposed Dr. Caligari has been using to murder others. It seems that Francis is aware that the director is not actually the original Caligari but that he essentially became Dr. Caligari as a result of his obsession with Caligari’s experiments; thus, the “Du musst Caligari werden” scene.
So the main question I’m left with is who is Francis? Why has he been sent to the asylum in the first place? Was there any connection with Jane before he was admitted or has he invented their relationship since they became inmates together at the asylum? If we’re to understand the entire story as a delusion, then who is Alan? Why on earth would Francis invent this person to act as a harmless rival for his love interest who is then killed off? Are we to assume that Francis has committed some sort of similar murder in the past, an act which has led him to the asylum? Is Alan a representative of some aspect of Francis’s past? Or has Alan been invented to subconsciously help Francis deal with some aspect of himself that he cannot confront?
I don’t know how you guys felt, but I found Cesare to be the most terrifying part of the whole film. Although, it is true, he bears an unfortunate resemblance to both Dieter from SNL’s Sprockets and The Cure’s Robert Smith, he also seems the most haunted/haunting figure in the film and reminded me not a little of the demon from The Exorcist. Seems to me he symbolizes repressed desire of some kind. After all, the two people killed by Cesare in Francis’s fantasy are the town clerk (who insults Caligari) and Alan (Francis’s rival for Jane). Cesare attempts to murder Jane but is unable and so only takes her temporary hostage. Although Cesare seems to suggest the horrors of what could happen were someone else able to command our will, he also seems to represent a sort of freedom we could experience if freed from our repressions and allowed to act according to our deepest desires.
And there is obviously some connection between Francis’s conception of Caligari and himself since he suffers the same strait-jacketed fate.
What did you think the doctor meant when he said that now that he understands the cause of Francis’s mania he also understands how to cure him?
Aesthetically, I found myself fascinated with all the off angles, strange swirling patterns, stark trees and shadows in the setting. Obviously, in retrospect, I suppose this all represents Francis’s deluded mind, but it all contributed to creepiness, too. Very “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” only perhaps a less symbolic setting in Caligari. Do we have anything equivalent today to this sort of style today?
And the circular fade in and outs. Are they simply technical, fulfilling a need to shift scenes? What is our equivalent? Do we even notice these gimmicks?
All right–I’m out. Let me know what you all thought. And remember next is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).