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Old cinema can still feel new, as a key scene from The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari demonstrates

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Lately, I’ve been hanging out a fair bit on Letterboxd.com, a site where folks can log, rate, and review movies. It’s a bit like Twitter in that you can follow specific people, and be followed, but it’s also possible to click on a film title and read reviews from various random members. It’s pretty much the same experience as reading IMDB user reviews, which I stopped doing years ago. (Some lessons you have to learn multiple times.) By far the most galling aspect of that experience is seeing people condescend to movies made before they were born. Often, they’ll allow that some canonical masterpiece was hugely influential, or “good for its time,” but in the next breath confess that they just can’t take it seriously given the enormous advances that have been made in the decades since. Making that criticism of an 18th-century novel, or even of a 30,000-year-old cave painting, would brand you an idiot; the fact that cinema involves technology, however, encourages the belief that the medium has seen a constant march of progress since its inception, culminating in... well, Inception.

Poppycock! I say. (It hasn’t all been progress interjection-wise, either.) One of the most thrilling aspects of digging through cinema history is discovering all of the brilliant ideas that never got pursued or developed—flourishes that still seem arresting and singular today. Even a silent film as well known as 1920’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, which has justly been acknowledged as the visual forebear of everything from The Third Man to Batman Returns, has the capacity to surprise—and not just in the mildly respectful, oh-that’s-where-that-came-from sense. Told mostly in flashback, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is the story of the crazed title character (Werner Krauss) and his murderous use of a sleepwalking patient (Conrad Veidt). We eventually learn—mild spoiler imminent, though the movie’s real twist comes at the very end—that the so-called Dr. Caligari has actually taken his name from a long-dead monk who performed an identically homicidal experiment centuries earlier. Here’s the scene that depicts Caligari’s moment of discovery, in which director Robert Wiene finds a unique method of conveying the doctor’s tormented thoughts.

Caligari’s most celebrated element, by far, is its anti-realistic set design, replete with jagged angles and skewed perspective. (German Expressionism more or less starts here.) The walls of the doctor’s office are an architectural nightmare, and have been painted, along with the floor, in a psychedelic pattern that would drive almost anyone crazy. The character’s disordered mind is further represented by stacks of books that are simply piled on the ground rather than shelved, with one stack leaning against the wall and thereby making it clear how radically that wall slopes away from the vertical. Depending on which DVD was used to make the clip—I’m working with the Kino version, but the film, like all films made prior to 1923, is in the public domain in the U.S.—you’ll also probably see some yellowish tinting in the office (and blue elsewhere), but that was a fairly standard convention for the era, not really expressionistic. What mattered to Wiene was space and the various ways that it could be distorted for the camera.

Take a look, though, at how we get from the group of men examining Caligari’s diary to the flashback (within a flashback) of Caligari first receiving Veidt as a patient. Like the wipe, the iris in/out is an effect that has all but gone extinct, except in movies like The Artist that are deliberately mimicking the silent era. But this is something I’ve rarely seen, despite having watched a lot of silent movies: a double iris that essentially functions as a wipe. Wiene irises in on the lower-left corner of the frame—not to isolate anything in particular, as one would normally do; the last thing we see is just some dude’s wrist—and simultaneously irises out in the upper-right corner of the frame, revealing the same office at an earlier point in time (and from a completely different angle). It’s an elegant transition, arguably more evocative than the standard horizontal wipe that George Lucas fancied enough to use throughout Star Wars. And it reverses itself a minute later, to remind us that we’re in an embedded flashback, then starts to reverse again as it heads back to Caligari (first briefly showing us the sleeping Caligari in the main flashback). Whether the abrupt cut from that third iris to the monk’s diary entry is intentional, or just an artifact of the movie’s beat-up surviving prints, I’m not sure.

So there’s a minor example of some fascinating innovation. What I really wanted to share, though, is the moment near the end of this clip, when “Caligari” (whose real name we don’t know, so there’s nothing else to call him), obsessed by the idea of carrying on the real Caligari’s fiendish experiment, rushes outside and is directly confronted by his own incessant thoughts. As elsewhere in the film, “outdoors” looks as misshapen as indoors, with identically designed trees and shrubs tilting every which way and a path that appears to have been laid by someone on the tail end of a serious bender. But it’s unclear why we’re just watching “Caligari” stumble around in a daze... until the words “DU MUSST CALIGARI WERDEN” (“YOU MUST BECOME CALIGARI”) start appearing all over the place. What’s particularly interesting about this concept is that we’re not merely seeing the character’s thoughts projected onto the screen, as if they were thought bubbles minus the actual bubbles. He can see them. He lunges at them. It’s one of the weirdest uses of onscreen text in cinema history, and if there have been similar examples since, I’m not aware of them. Even in a movie like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when Ferris is outlining the steps for faking an illness and the words appear right beside him, he doesn’t interact with them in any way. (There probably are some comedies that have done stuff like this, but The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is no comedy.)

It’s possible to argue there was more of a need to play around with onscreen text in the silent era, when dialogue was impossible, and that’s why the idea surfaced only once way back when. (Note that this five-minute clip also includes intertitles and several diary entries, one of which is so long that it requires scrolling.) But it’s not as if later filmmakers—most notably Godard—haven’t recognized the potential power of placing words on top of images. In fact, if there was ever a time when I’d expect to see a sudden resurgence of textual experimentation, it’d be right now, given how much time most of us spend interacting with words on screens. Apart from the little-seen Chilean movie Young And Wild (adapted from a blog), however, filmmakers haven’t really made an effort to represent that shift expressionistically. Is it possible that some young, creative, open-minded director might watch The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, recognize a good idea that’s been underused, and give us, say, a character tormented by imaginary pop-up notifications? Okay, maybe that’s a dumb idea. Or maybe not. In any case, the idea that movies made long ago have nothing to offer us, time having passed them by long ago, is definitely dumb.