“Who do you see in Caligari’s mirror?” –Pere Ubu, “Caligari’s Mirror”-
Throughout 2010, cinematic stories of out-of-control dreamers and psychotics dominated both the box office and the popular discourse. Black Swan, Inception and Shutter Island all follow protagonists whose grasp of reality are threatened by mental landscapes of their own invention. All three films, especially Shutter Island, owe a tremendous debt to German expressionist Robert Wiene, who first visualized the fractured identity of a madman in his seminal 1920 silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s biggest contribution to today’s movies is the way it hides its main protagonist’s paranoia from the viewer. A series of murders has plagued the little town of Holstenwall. A young man named Francis can’t process the fact that he, in some way, was involved (a conflict that bears striking resemblance to that of Leonardo Di Caprio’s Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island). To escape his past, Francis unconsciously creates an avatar for himself, known as “Cesare, The Somnambulist,” an omniscient, sleep-walking side-show attraction presented to the public by the nefarious traveling showman, Dr. Caligari.
The insidious-looking Caligari, whose sinister intent is broadcast in his repellant physique – thinning hair, squat, butterball body and Cheshire cat grin – keeps Cesare in a coffin. That state of living death says a lot about Cesare’s limited agency. Cesare is responsible for everything that goes wrong in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but, having committed these crimes in his sleep, he is somehow not culpable for his actions. Francis fixates on and identifies with Cesare because like Cesare, Francis is mostly powerless. But as the film reveals its secrets, it becomes apparent that Cesare is a foil for Francis for enact his suppressed fantasies, displaced acts of violence that Francis ultimately must confront.
In the same way, Shutter Island‘s Teddy Daniels is, whether he knows it or not, searching for a way to understand and accept how responsible he is for the death of his wife (Michelle Williams). When her ghost first visits him, Daniels is left staring at his hands, an explicit and very literal manifestation of his own guilt.
He doesn’t know how, but in some way he is guilty, and he needs to understand why. After she first visits him, whispering that she’s nothing but “bones in a box,” she dissolves in Daniels’s arms, leaving him to stare incredulously at his own hands.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is such an indispensable film because of the archetypes it established. Both films rely on plot twists, reversals and red herrings to keep the viewer’s suspicion away from their protagonist and remain fixated on someone, anyone else. Shutter Island’s Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) feels like a modern-day Caligari, a shadowy figure that Daniels believes is exerting an inexorable, supernatural hold on him. It’s also a major element in Black Swan, with Mila Kunis posing a constant threat to Natalie Portman’s fragile lead ballerina. A clear prototype is found in the scapegoats who are marked in Wiene’s film—see the scruffy-looking but blameless victim persecuted by Holstenwall’s citizens.
Francis’s irrational fear of Caligari builds to the point where his influence threatens to overtake everything, including Caligari himself. At that point, Caligari sees his name everywhere, threatening to consume him.
Ironically, Francis soon learns that there’s more to a name than meets the eye: Caligari is not really who he appears to be. Francis runs headlong into a series of revelations that amount to Weine’s biggest coup, when the film itself seems on the brink of imploding from its own twisted sense of reality. For poor Francis, it’s a pitilessly dark moment; but for us, it’s one of the most energizing moments from early cinema, one that lives on in the twisted stories and characters on today’s screen.