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09 October 2011 @ 03:46 am
Fake Psychics -- The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari  
To be honest, I wasn't sure I was even going to write about this movie, but then I decided it was worth discussing as an early film featuring a "fake psychic" (and mesmerism). And these are important tropes.

And yet again, I have a few comments about Paul Meehan's Cinema of the Psychic Realm. /sigh/

Wikipedia's summary of the "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" can be found here, and the full movie can be found here.

Here is Meehan's summary of the movie and its relevance to a study is psi in cinema:

"In Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), for instance, the evil hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) exerts his mind control powers over Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who is reduced to a somnambulistic state wherein he lies asleep in a coffin until roused to do the murderous bidding of the monstrous doctor. The hypnotized Cesare recalls the psychic "somnambules" who were so prominent in the Mesmerist movement of the late 18th Century. With its highly stylized Expressionist sets, which represented the interior worlds of madness and dreams, Caligari was an international sensation that launched the German Expressionist cinema movement and is today considered a classic of the silent era."

First, and I know this is a picky detail, it's a movie from 1920, not 1919. Maybe it was filmed in 1919 and released in 1920? I don't know. The second inaccuracy is more important: Dr. Caligari does not reduce Cesare to a somnambulistic state. At 40:28: "March 12th A somnambulist was admitted to the hospital. At last....!" Then we see the somnambulist brought into the Dr.'s office, whereupon he sends the other doctors away and rejoices. His next notation reads: "Letter -- Now nothing stands in the way of my cherished ambition! At last I put the Caligari theory to the test -- I now shall soon know if this patient can be compelled to perform deeds he would shrink from in his normal waking state. Can he be made to commit murder?"

We are never given any indication of what put Cesare into that state, and it is never implied that it had anything to do with mesmerism. The link with mesmerism in this movie is in the Doctor's use of Cesare to commit murders. And the doctor's "mind control powers" are never alleged to be anything psi or supernatural (like in some books and movies). He knows what he does because he's the head of a mental asylum (and has been reading about that ancient and legendary sinister monk). No "special powers" (as an early 21st century viewer would understand it) are necessary.

So does the movie have any psi? Wikipedia says,

"The narrator, Francis (Friedrich Fehér), and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) visit a carnival in the village where they see Dr. Caligari and the somnambulist Cesare, whom the doctor is displaying as an attraction. Caligari hawks that Cesare can answer any question he is asked. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare tells Alan that he will die before dawn tomorrow – a prophecy which is fulfilled."

One problem -- it's not prophecy if Cesare (through the control of the doctor) knows that Alan will be dead by sunrise because they plan to kill him.

I don't think the movie has any psi in it.

The doctor's control over Cesare is certainly "sinister mesmerism," but I find it questionable at best whether this can be counted as psi. Mesmerism is an entire philosophical/medical/scientific/ontological framework of reality unto itself, a precedent to today's electricity and magnetism, yet also incorporating ideas of the human energy field (and of fluids). While psi can sometimes be understood in a Mesmeric framework, and while it to a large extent was understood in this framework throughout the 19th century, that doesn't mean that any instance of mesmerism necessarily involves psi.

Later works which include the "fake psychic" trope are different; they are clear upfront that the fake psychic is "fake" because psi "does not exist." Some then introduce a "real" psychic to challenge the audience's assumption that psi is not real (for the duration of the movie), who may or may not lose his/her abilities by the end of the movie, but who will clearly end the narrative "outside of the public view" (if not outside society entirely). This movie, despite the prominence of a sinister Mesmeric charlatan, does not actually appear to take any sides in the question of "is mesmerism real." If anything, the assumption is yes. Dr. Caligari is a fake, but he's a fake not because mesmerism doesn't work, but because it does -- and he has taken his somnambulist on the road to kill victims, hiding his "true" identity as the head of a mental asylum. He is sinister because a) he's lying to everyone about his true identity, b) he's abusing his power and authority, and c) he's using this lie and abuse of power not only to abuse a vulnerable patient, but also to kill people. He is not a fake because mesmerism does not work, or because his act is "impossible." The movie is scary because of (among other things) the assumption that it is possible.

But then the whole thing is a delusion, leaving the audience to question what is "reality."

In the movie, the crowd watching the somnambulist clearly accepts somnambulism. So, likely, does the movie's audience; at the very least, the audience has a close familiarity with the ideas of mesmerism. There does not appear to be a denouncement of belief in mesmerism, though there is a clear denouncement of mental asylums and the men who ran them. (According to Wikipedia, one of the film's writers, Mayer, "...was still angered about his sessions during the war [World War I] with an autocratic, highly ranked, military psychiatrist.")

So, in sum, the movie does not appear directly to have to do with psi, though it does set up an early example of the "fake psychic" trope, before it took on its later form (in which the psychic is fake because "we all know that psychic phenomena do not exist.")
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