Seeking an Asylum: Power in Caligari and its Relationship to the Viewer

August 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

Seeking an Asylum: Power in Caligari and its Relationship to the Viewer The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is an allegory of the abuses of the older generation of political authorities, who irrationally led younger generations of Germans into WWI (Nestrick 7). The film’s villain Dr. Caligari/ the Director embodies this tyrannical power over the young German population, which is captured in the mise-en-scene. However, his power extends beyond merely what appears before the camera to the control of the camera, the narrative, and the spectatorship. This absolute control runs through the entire film and eventually transforms the audience into patients of an asylum, who grasp for answers and question their own sanity. Caligari first appears within the film walking up the stairs from the carnival in a slow and unstable gate. His white gloves are streaked with black lines, just as the audience later finds his hair to be. An iris/matte shot centers his face in a frame suggesting that he should be focused on, even within this harsh world of German expressionist sets, for it is he that controls this world. The audience gains a glimpse into the depth of Caligari’s power within the town hall. The walls of the hall are streaked with black lines just like Caligari’s gloves and hair, which implies that Caligari is part of the structure of power, a motif that later becomes more substantial when he is discovered to be the director (Whissel lecture). The matching streaked walls also serve to foreshadow the death of the town clerk who treats Caligari as if he were a second-class citizen. Caligari usurps his power by having Cesare murder the clerk. The clerk is the only other strong figure of authority within Francis’ narrative and with him removed, Caligari becomes the only source and holder of massive power (Whissel lecture). Caligari’s manipulative and tyrannical nature is even reflected in the set design. However, Caligari’s wealth of power does not end there, but continues to grow in subtler moments throughout the film. Later in the film, the audience discovers that Caligari is the “Director” of the mental institution. With Caligari, “Director” becomes more than a title, but a way to better understand his power. His relationship with Cesare, the somnambulist, can be looked at in terms of Caligari’s direction of him. In the first scene with Cesare coming out of the cabinet, Caligari directs the somnambulists’ movements, like a puppeteer would his marionette (Nestrick 18). This references the control of the German government that sent soldiers out to fight the war. Caligari’s absolute power as a director comes to fruition when he directs the camera, taking control of the film itself. The Cabinet’s composition of shots relies strongly upon tableaux framing, a theatrical motif, allowing a limited view of the off-screen space and filmic world. Close-ups and medium shots are used to articulate space, but otherwise the camera remains static. However, there is one shot in the entire film in which the camera pans and tracks movement – the moment when Jane ventures to the carnival and meets Dr. Caligari. Caligari invites her into his tent with broad gestures motioning her into his domain. These inviting gestures not only move Jane into the tent, but the camera as well as it tracks their movement. Caligari is not only able to direct people, but the camera, which renders the entire narrative under his sway. If Caligari can control the camera, he controls what the audience sees, in the same manner that he controls what Francis sees and believes. Francis’ narrative constitutes the film’s frame device, which appears to mitigate the film’s critique of power by making the story the ravings of a “madman.” However, the inconsistencies in Francis’ narrative ultimately enhance the film’s overall message of the corrupt and abusive power of the older generation of Germans. Francis’ narrative, although clear, relates information he was not privy to – for instance, the details of Alan’s murder. In the murder scene, the audience encounters a fluid sequence of the murder, which could point to the fact that Francis is actually the murderer. However, it also could be Francis purely creating this brutality, which he did not experience, to persuade his asylum friend of his case against the Director. The most likely option appears to be that Francis’ story is not entirely under his control; it could have been collaborated on in the form of brainwashing. Another instance in the film, which points to this collaboration, occurs when Francis discovers the diary of the Director. Francis’ reading of the diary is crosscut with the Director sleeping. Crosscutting implies simultaneity and there is no possible way for Francis to have constructed this by himself, since he only receives second hand information about the sleeping Director and has never seen the man’s villa. The Director, of course, does know what the villa looks like and what he was doing at the time of Francis’ reading. Therefore, the Director could have fueled Francis’ narrative and perhaps corrupted it to make Francis seem insane while Francis has been at the asylum. The last lines of the film, which come from Caligari, further evidence this interpretation “At last I understand his mania. He thinks that I am that mystic Caligari–! And now I also know how to cure him.” The Director does not tell us how he will cure Francis, which leads to an open, unresolved ending. However, this statement comes within the same iris/matte shot that occurred at the beginning of the entry into Francis’ story, which signals the beginning of a new story told by the Director. After already capturing control within the mind of Francis, the Director now assumes control of the narrative outside of Francis’ mind. He now not only controls the mise-en-scene and the camera, but also the narrative, which inspires the audience’s paranoia. It becomes difficult to distinguish the outside world from the world of Francis’ narrative. Francis’ narrative contains the German Expressionist sets that represent the harsh world in which Francis resides. Outside of his mind the sets have a more naturalistic rendering. Despite these differences, the Holstenwall mental institution appears exactly the same within the frame and outside of it. In addition, the filmic techniques such as the iris and matte shots are used in both narrative spaces. Nothing in the camera or editing’s representation of the world changes in either Francis’ story or the story outside of his. Consistent in both narrative settings is the control exerted by either Caligari or the Director over the younger generation. Strangely, Caligari controls only Cesar in the world of “fantasy,” however in “reality” the Director controls all those who reside in the asylum. In reality the older generation holds even more control because they determine who can be categorized as insane; they control sanity. Francis succeeds in taking down the tyranny in his “fantasy” world, but outside his narrative fails to overthrow the director revealing that in reality, the possibility of overthrowing these power structures are an illusion. Although reality and illusion appear to be separated, in fact they are mixed and even intertwined. The film purposely makes it difficult to draw a line between reality and illusion creating a sense of madness in the viewer just as Caligari/the Director creates madness within Francis. The film’s original advertising campaign centered on the phrase “You must become Caligari” (Coates 111). The film follows this motto, for his power exists in every facet, blurring the lines or reality and fiction and leaving the audience and the characters of the younger generation in a daze, struggling to decipher what they have seen. Caligari’s power in the film is much like the scene where the name Caligari keeps appearing and disappearing before the Director in the courtyard. It drives the Director insane for he cannot escape it just as Caligari’s power in the film is all encompassing. The power and tyrannical nature of Caligari pervade almost all aspects of the film, whether it is the narrative, the camera movement, the mise-en-scene, or the spectatorship.

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