Dr. Caligari: A Radical Image From the Past

Watching a film with the visual tour-de-force of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, one experiences an undistilled flow of several emotions. There is the sense of awe in the audacity of its own diegetic mastery. There is the uncanny unease of its grainy, almost spectral display of filmic representation, enhanced by an unwavering commitment to raw expressionistic modes. There is also, beneath this, a kind of sadness, a remorse even, that this radically alternative approach to cinema exists only as historical interlude, a brief rupture within the unrelenting march of classical realism.

Dr. Caligari is, of course, a silent film. It is both a tragic and unfortunate commentary on our conditioned response to cinema that this fact alone is seen as reason enough by many to avoid it. It is certainly an argument against contemporary cinema-as-art that the virtue of the image is so spectacularly ruptured via the simple absence of certain aural cues – as if the image itself lacks the necessary force to uphold its own relationship with the imagined spectator.

The march of technological progress encourages celebration of the new and spectacular; it also disavows the loss from within culture that this bludgeoning presence serves to terminally disconnect. Watching a film like Dr. Caligari, one can’t help but feel that such an act of loss has occurred with the introduction, and imposition, of sound within the cinematic frame. While the presence of intra-diegetic dialogue has allowed cinema to grow into the universal medium it exists as today, the primacy of the image has no doubt suffered an ontological suffocation. One wonders to what extent a modern day Dr. Caligari would be possible at all were aural dialogue allowed to freely subvert and distract from the visual majesty of a truly committed expressionism.

The real unflinching beauty of Dr. Caligari is the extent to which it can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, without any concern paid to narrative suture. There are very few films that could say the same.

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