Posted by David Kalat on June 28, 2014
Now that the announcement has been made official I can go ahead and ‘fess up: I recently recorded an audio commentary for the newly restored Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the UK Blu-Ray release by Masters of Cinema. It was a huge thrill for me—I’d been wanting to do a Caligari commentary for years and no one had asked me yet. But not only was it a chance to finally yammer my way through Robert Wiene’s masterwork, but this new restoration is simply stunning—it’s from the original 35mm negative. Looks like it was shot yesterday.
And seeing this film fresh makes all the difference in the world, because there are so many myths and misconceptions about Caligari that need clearing up. Like, that this film is some kind of avant garde work of art. Because (ahem) it’s not.
Now, I don’t mean to say it isn’t a work of art—that it certainly is. I mean, it helped create the whole concept of art films, fer crissakes.
But there’s a default understanding of Caligari that it represents an intrusion of avant garde art into the conventional mainstream expression of commercial cinema—I dare you to find a discussion of Caligari that doesn’t proceed from this assumption.
But there’s a fundamental problem with that—and let’s go find it together.
Screenwriter Hans Janowitcz says that he and co-writer Carl Mayer had written into the script that the sets would be abstracted paintings, to be done in the style of Alfred Kubin. Indeed, Janowitcz apparently reached out to Kubin and asked him to join the production as a designer, but the painter demurred so they just wrote into the script, “in the style of Kubin.”
Kubin was an Expressionist, but his style of Expressionism was more on the Surrealist side of things. His uncanny landscapes are pornographic without being erotic, haunting Goya-esque visions of gloom and shadow. His style is absolutely appropriate for a story like Caligari, but his hallucinatory imagery is also completely unlike what this movie ended up looking like. Nosferatu is closer to his style than this is.
So somewhere along the line, the plan to have Kubinistic sets fell by the wayside and the design ended up more cubistic. The similarity of those words isn’t just a quirk of English—they’re even closer in German. To say Kubin-like, you’d write Kubinische. And if you didn’t know who Kubin was, or just misread it, you might think the word was Kubistische—Cubist.
That’s what Janowitcz thinks happened. That his note referencing Kubinische designs was misread as Kubitsiche designs and the film ended up like this.
German Expressionism is one of those “you know it when you see it” things. It can be tough to describe in words, partly because it wasn’t a proper art movement. By that I mean, in the early 20th century there were a flurry of art movements—Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Romanticism, etc. You knew these were movements because they were organized—there were leaders, manifestos, membership rosters, and internal politics. By contrast, there was no such formal organization behind Expressionism.
But anyone can paint or sculpt in a Fauvist or a Cubist or Romanticist style without being a member of the group. Being a true Cubist isn’t about painting in the most truly Cubist style, it’s about being a recognized member of the group. Someone who isn’t a member can paint in a true Cubist style and they’d be… something else.
And this is where Expressionism arose: a conglomeration of artists whose work had hints of those other movements—Cubism and Romanticism, Fauvism and Futurism—but who were not claimed by any other movement.
There’s another distinction to be drawn. Broadly speaking, the difference between avant garde art and modern art is that modern art is about an aesthetic reaction to what’s gone before and an attempt to push out into new aesthetic frontiers; whereas avant garde art employs those new aesthetics in the service of creating social change.
And within those parameters we can see that Expressionism may not be a formal movement, but is avant garde, because it had both an aesthetic and a moral component.
The aesthetics were driven by a reaction against Impressionism, in which abstraction and other stylistic devices were used to render the real world in an evocative way. Consider a Monet haystack—the haystack isn’t really a jumble of multicolored hashmarks, but those colorful dots and dashes create an impression of a real haystack.
Expressionism isn’t concerned with using stylized tricks to render the real world, but in using precise techniques to render an unreal world.
And that’s where we come to the moral component—Expressionist art actually had its heyday well before this film—it was actually dying out by 1920. The apex of Expressionism was before the First World War—Expressionist literature, painting, drama, sculpture, and poetry flourished in the years leading up to the War as a counter-cultural rejection of the materialism of the contemporary world and a gesture towards a new spirituality.
Expressionist art emphasized the uncanny and the grotesque as a form of social critique. Implicit in that critique was the idea that the world was flawed, that it needed to change, and that it would change. There was a calamity coming, an apocalypse, that would wipe out the corrupt present order and inaugurate the new world order. A better world was coming. Today’s nightmares were just the darkness before the dawn.
When the First World War hit, there were many Expressionists who saw this as the apocalypse they’d always seen coming. This was the event that would change the world. The War to End All Wars.
Except it didn’t happen like that. Instead of making the world a better place, the war just made it worse. The idealistic Expressionists were disillusioned, their hopes routed. Without that guiding moral force, a lot of the energy got sucked out.
Expressionism continued to exist, but had now been around long enough to become fashionable. Avant garde art is art for the angry underground counter cultural revolutionaries. Fashionable art gets bought by rich people, and appropriated for commercial uses.
In fact, while Caligari may be the tipping point where Expressionism appeared in the movie frame on screen, it was a routine sight for moviegoers. The theater where Caligari premiered, Berlin’s Marmourhaus, was decorated as an Expressionist space, and the walls were adorned with Expressionist placards advertising upcoming films.
Meanwhile, the true avant garde in 1920s Germany had turned to the “Neue Sachlichkeit”—or the New Sobriety. Named for a one-off art exhibition that soon spilled out to a full-fledged movement, the New Sobriety was an American-influenced, no-nonsense engagement with practical reality, and a return to conventional forms and traditional representationalism. Believe it or not.
As an art movement it died off when the Nazis came to power, but if you really wanted to see an avant-garde version of Caligari, they would have dispensed with all the symbolism and just gone for realism. You could argue the Expressionist stuff was just a marketing gimmick, and the most avant garde material is in the realistic outer frame.
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