Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Paging Dr. Caligari

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | October 02, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: class warfare, Halloween, military, Presidential politics, socialism, socialist, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Caligari.jpgI awoke this morning too early, thinking about things I need to do, but being still tired, tried to lull myself back to dreamland by reading. I chose "Funeral In Berlin," a classic cold-war spy novel by that master of the genre, Len Deighton. But alas, sleep fled after reference to a "Caligarian cabinet" preceded "dancing the gopak," and in the age of Wikipedia I find it impossible to pass up an intriguingly obscure reference.

These images were not a good recipe for sleep, but they did bring an odd, offbeat sort of inspiration, one that is especially good in the autumn, with leaves and weather turning, and, for an academic like me, the resumption of the school year bringing a welter of classes, grading and committee meetings. The ridiculous hurry of autumn makes one wonder if it all has any meaning, not unlike my novel's spy vs. spy cold-war insanities.

There is a connection among "Caligarian cabinets," autumn, the cold war and the meaning of meaning, and I remained in bed stubbornly trying to chase away meaning and find sleep, but ultimately gave it up as a bad business and came down to coffee and the joys of writing in the middle of the night. Deighton's work, describing a vanished world of fifty years ago, is full of obscure references, and I was especially intrigued by his reference to the main character's wondering how he would get out of a situation that he termed a "Caligarian cabinet." What kind of cabinet? I knew this referred to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a classic 1920 horror movie about a mad hypnotist who used his sleepwalking sidekick (who slept in a coffin-like cabinet) to kill those who slighted him. How appropos to think of this at the beginning of October, as we approach Halloween, a holiday that once had a truly frightening meaning, but which we now relegate to children.

The movie was a masterpiece of German Expressionism, a post-World War I artistic movement that embraced an ethic of expressiveness and change as a means of overcoming a brutal and authoritarian society of militarism and outdated bourgeois social values, both dangerous in a modern world. (Did you know that the highest teen pregnancy rate is in the most socially conservative states, and the lowest is in the most liberal states? Ignorance as a social value has its dangers.) This artistic movement's dark tones and feelings of horror and outrage later mutated into the genre of film noir, revered today by many in our community for its over-the-top dramatic silliness, but expressing the unspoken horror and outrage of its day with precision. We have forgotten, to our discredit, our sense of horror at the world's continuing outrages.

What I did not know is that the movie concept was altered by the studio to provide a happy ending, which reversed the screenplay's intended point. As originally conceived, Dr. Caligari's murders via a sleepwalker under hypnotic control were an allusion to the horrors of World War I, when an authoritarian German government pressed millions of young German men into militarism, using nativist, jingoistic, homophobic sentiments, and a war that, for the first time in world history, led to the gruesome deaths of millions. Being made in the decade after the horrors of World War I, of which everyone was acutely conscious, that reference was obvious and compelling. However, the studio decided to appeal to popular values by making Dr. Caligari's murders into the fantasy of a mental patient, and Dr. Caligari into a kindly old psychiatrist who could cure the patient. This, of course, turned the allusion upside down, suggesting that those who were against militarism were deluded. Since the Nazis took power only five years after the movie was made, leading this time to the gruesome deaths of tens of millions, and ruthless suppression of the homosexual movement that had flourished in Germany, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is not "just a movie," but an accurate weather vane of its times. We know who won that political fight and what happened as a result as a historical matter, but we have forgotten that history repeats itself. In our foolish belief in "American Exceptionalism," we have forgotten that we are, in fact, part of the world and as subject to its historical social forces as any other. These are now playing out in the Presidential race, but first, more about this classic movie whose influence on film continues even today.

The artists who sought to make "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" raged against the studio's change to a happy ending unsuccessfully, but ultimately made the movie. The movie retained its anti-authoritarian message, despite the strange, tacked-on ending. The success of the movie led to the widespread use of the "surpise twist" ending, as well as contributing to artistic values used years later in Edward Scissorhands, Shutter Island and other well-known movies. Of course, we today have forgotten all about "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and its effect on today's films, except for a few film scholars. We have also forgotten that it has been compellingly suggested by Siegfried Kracauer that the pro-militaristic version of Dr. Caligari foreshadowed and perpetuated a public mood that led to the rise of Hitler only a few years later. It contrasted Dr. Caligari, a tyrannical figure who in the end turned out to be kind and able to cure the illness, to the alternative of madness and social chaos. The movie suggests that we should prefer kindly old Dr. Caligari as a strong leader who will save us from the chaos, even if he seems to be a murderer. Film history turns out to be pretty interesting. No wonder I couldn't sleep.

But hey, wait a minute. This isn't all old cinematic history. This is actually our lives. We live in a country and time where militarism is all the rage. In fact, it's so popular that both parties in our two-party system have embraced it whole-heartedly, and we're in the midst of the longest war of our young country's history. While nativism and homophobia are seen as a bastion of the right wing, ICE has pushed forward with raids and major sanctions against employers who employ undocumented workers, and Congress has balked at passing immigration reform or LGBT employment protections. The passage of DADT repeal is, of course, significant, but its jingoistic appeal outweighed its homosexual negatives just enough to get the bill passed by a slim majority. What makes the Iraq and Afghanistan wars particularly popular is that we have figured out a way to keep military control of portions of the region while getting very few of our own troops killed, a few thousands, although hundreds of thousands of our soldiers have been injured catastrophically. We dismiss the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians as the casualties of war. Even more wonderful for the right, the media largely stopped covering the war several years ago, and so the horrors have hidden from us, with the rare exception of vague references to "heroes," a word so overused today that it means virtually nothing. In fact, the war itself has dropped out of popular discussion, and even in the Presidential race now leading up to elections in 2012, the issue has rarely come up, even as the right-wingers called for our military involvement in Libya, Iran, Somalia and other places. The American public is as weary of war talk as it is of anti-war talk, all while horrors are perpetuated in our name in countries thousands of miles away whose names we can barely pronounce. But the U.S. military is our nation's largest employer, and keeping it in business, along with the billions for defense contractors who line the pockets of politicians, is job #1. If that's not sleepwalking, I don't know what is.

But this isn't just about militarism. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was also about exploitive political parties that appealed to conservative social values, national pride, anger against foreign elements and Communism in their successful attempt to consolidate control. The charge of "socialist," "class warfare" and "Kenyan" that is being used against President Obama is not ultimately about President Obama. I also see a clear parallel to the issues facing today's LGBT movement in the United States. Our desire for freedom to express our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identities without discrimination is being characterized as the "enemy" against which conservatives must "defend." Marriage is being "defended," as is heterosexual pride. The conservative public is being manipulated by conservative politicians to see gay rights as lunacy, rather than the freedom symbolized by the American Revolution. They are being encouraged (and it doesn't take much) to yearn for a kindly Dr. Caligari who will cure our mental and social illnesses and thereby overcome the social chaos of a world of gay marriage and transgender civil rights, even if he seems to be a murderer. Economic conservativism is also successful for this reason, despite that fact that we know from history that retrenching during a time of recession is a recipe for a Great Depression. Right wingers are encouraging the idea that we are approaching "chaos," whether social, economic or religious (think "End Times"), and that returning to old values will bring a return to a safe old world of memory. But the fact is that the safe old world never existed, and only exists in the minds of older people who remember the good times of their youth, when they were bold and strong, and they forget the serious problems which, perhaps, they never understood in the first place, being young and indoctrinated by the Disneyesque hogwash that passes for learning in high school, where children are rarely taught anything that they might actually need to know in order to understand the world they really face. The "three R's" that Henry Ford wanted for his factory workers just isn't where it's at in today's world, but know-nothings don't understand that. They just want the old days back.

Dr. Caligari's message about kindly old authoritative murderers is also relevant to what's happening in the Republican Presidential race. None of the candidates seem "presidential," meaning sufficiently authoritative, decisive or cold-hearted enough to do what needs to be done. 1933 anyone? Presidential candidate Rick Perry, during the recent Republican Presidential debates, revealed his inability to be a complete Caligari when he characterized as "heartless" those conservatives who want a permanent underclass of uneducated non-citizens by refusing to help undocumented children gain a college education by receiving the lower in-state college tuition. It also didn't help that he couldn't remember his talking points even with cue cards. And that's why Governor Chris Christie, despite his protestations of not being ready to run for President, is so in demand. He has been made out to be a heartless bully by constant repetition of certain sound bites that show he's not afraid to use tough talk. "Gail, that's none of your business," he said on camera in a pugnacious, bullying tone to a mother who wondered why Governor Christie sends his kids to a private school while busting public school teacher unions and attempting to withdraw more and more budget money from public education. But he also is an incomplete Caligari because of certain more reasonable positions that he holds, such as the idea that prejudice based merely on Muslim faith is wrong, as when he defended his appointment of a Muslim lawyer to the bench and said that conservative concern about imposition of Shariah law on America was "nonsense." What the conservatives yearn for is a Dr. Caligari to still the "chaos" posed by changes to economic, military and social systems. They want gay marriage to go away because it is one of the symptoms of inevitable change that seem to threaten chaos. They want transgender civil rights to be dismissed by phantom fears of bathroom invasions that never existed because it is a symbol of a world in which they do not feel comfortable, wishing to retreat to a mythic time when they understood the world (or thought they did). The desire to escape chaos by following an authoritarian leader is neither new nor surprising, but our being asleep to what happens when we do that is scary.

All this from an interrupted night's sleep and a spy novel. Well, I suppose one of the compensations of getting older is that, even if one is less able to do, one has more time and ability to think. Ultimately, I think art, like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," is a way of making sense of our world, of finding connections between the myriad themes and events that often go unnoticed and misunderstood. Often, the art itself, like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," operates on at least two levels, with a simple entertainment value and also a more complex allusion to contemporary events. Those who never understand what's going on except at face value think it's about the story line - a romance, a crime, a madman. But art is ultimately revealing about the underlying meaning of the world in which the artist lives. (By the way, the gopak gained popularity as a Cossack military victory dance. You might have thought it looked cute in Fiddler on the Roof, but it wasn't.) I look to The Matrix series of films (and comic books, video games, and action figures) as a perfect example. Most reviewers and the general public saw it as a science fiction film with kung fu. The idea that we ourselves are in The Matrix is a ridiculous notion to most people - it's just a film. I also remember hearing the story of the father consoling the crying little girl after seeing the non-fiction Holocaust film "Schindler's List," by saying "it's just a movie." The horror of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" isn't in the murders committed by a sleepwalker. It's in the suggestion that you, that I, that we, as a nation and as a world, may be sleepwalkers ourselves, driven to commit murders to which we ourselves are unconscious, by the kindly Dr. Caligari. It makes me glad that I couldn't sleep.

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dharmapupil | October 3, 2011 2:10 AM

Another excellent article, Dr. Weiss!
I would also extend the "kindly old murderer" analogy to the Democrats, who blindly rubber-stamp Defense spending and a President who does not seem to be able to close the Guantanamo detention facility. (Honestly, I am glad Obama was elected and look forward to his re-election, but there are a few things I'd like to talk with him about.)

I subscribe to the belief that each period has movies - usually horror or science fiction - which reflect our collective fears. In the 50s and 60s it was giant ants, Gila monsters and 50-foot women caused by nuclear radiation. In the 80s we had the fear of dehumanization in Terminator and Blade Runner. Lately, we've seen the return of the Zombie, also popular in the 70s, those mindless shuffling creatures who possess no thought but to 'eat' the brains of those who have not yet 'joined' them. Koolaid anyone?
And there is the proliferation of the (very White, usually wealthy) superhero like Thor, Iron Man, Batman and Captain America, all men, protecting the privileged classes from the rise of the "dark" forces. A bit on-the-nose, eh? Even the X-Men franchise splits between the assimilationist ("good") guys and the forces of chaos who wish to change the world-as-we-know-it. (Toothsome as Hugh Jackman may be, I know which side I favor...)

Well, thanks for getting me thinking in the middle of the night. At least, you can have the satisfaction of knowing you ruined someone else's sleep! Cheers!