Hello, fellow Arts One students!
For my inaugural post / presentation of the year, I would like to focus on the motif of “showmanship” or performance in some of the films we’ve discussed this week. In particular, I think “Caligari” and “Dr. Mabuse, Part I” display this idea more strongly, but given enough thought, I think it could apply to “Nosferatu” as well.
I have always been interested in exploring the profound influence of World War I on the culture of the time as well as the dawn of the 20th-century modernist mindset. The Roaring Twenties in America (the culture of which was partially exported to Weimar Germany, as Prof. Lieblang discussed in lecture) witnessed, among other things, the predominance of the cabaret, the dazzling lights of show business, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the sort of jaded decadence that we harken back to in narratives from “The Great Gatsby” to “Chicago” – a decadence that I suggest is influenced by how Germans reacted to the results of the war. I’m also interested in exploring the notion, also brought up in lecture, of this decadence being “dancing on the edge of a volcano” – what exactly got them to the edge of the volcano? Why are they dancing? My aim is to present the films, particularly “Caligari” and “Dr. Mabuse”, for you in a new light – looking for evidence of a need for spectacle, a desire for attention, an empty bombast that signals the cultural ambiance of the age.
First question – why are they at the edge of the volcano? One can assume that the volcano itself – the thing that will eventually cause the end of the decadence – would be the Great Depression looming on the horizon, or the political instability that eventually leads to Hitler getting elected, or any number of things signalling the fragility of the peace and the approach of the next war. I would like to suggest that despite all this, the partiers of the Twenties, in Germany, America, or elsewhere, didn’t really care. I don’t feel highly qualified to provide flawless commentary on the social conditions of the time, but the end of the last war perhaps was so precious to them that all they wanted to do was celebrate with reckless abandon (or, at least, that’s what literary works depicting the time suggested).
Secondly, why are they dancing? I have several interpretations for this. First is the idea that “dancing on the edge of the volcano” is meant to be read as a single phrase; the people of the Weimar era are intentionally taking the risk, intentionally engaging in casual sex (as we referenced in Schnitzler’s “Reigen” for Austrian society, albeit before the war) or moral depravity or intense partying because they know it’s not going to last. Another idea is that they’re disoriented, stepping to and fro like a drunk, which is why it seems as if they’re dancing, but also in danger with every (mis)step they take – the decadence is a way for them to cope with the trauma of the war, the devastation that it brought to Germany. I think both of these points are valid; I think maybe both of them could even be true, like a Nastasya Filippovna-sort of thing, continually ruining herself and knowing that she’ll probably die, but doing it anyway.
Dancing can also be aesthetically beautiful, and that’s one way we can connect this “volcano” imagery to its literal, cultural manifestation. The “Weimar glitz”, as I’ll call it, looks fun and fancy free on the outside – like we see in “Dr. Mabuse” with the opulence of the gambling clubs, including the technologically-superb Petit Palais that features near the end – but on the inside, at its “heart” (Conrad reference right there) is full of emptiness, bitterness, secrets, plotting – the immorality of gambling, the ambiguity of relationships between “Hugo Balling” and Hull, between Hull and Carozza. Secrecy and a dissonance between what others perceive and what is actually true looms large for both Doctors Caligari and Mabuse; Ellen in “Nosferatu” also struggles for a while between keeping herself hidden from Count Orlok and sacrificing herself, the “better” outcome but also a fatal one for her.
And now, showmanship!
Dr. Caligari initially wants to “show off” the somnambulist Cesare to the audience; I also interpreted this scene as Caligari using the fair as the means to pick his next target (and Alan, unfortunately, fell victim to the plot). The way I look at it, Caligari is actually using a public spectacle to perpetuate the secret plot – as if showmanship will hide the underlying motives of what exactly is going on.
Another scene that struck me is that of Dr. Mabuse at the stock market. Above the crazy activity, he stands alone, nonchalantly, on some sort of platform and proclaims, “I’m buying!” “I’m selling!”. I wondered, how is nobody noticing him, wondering why this guy is standing there so calmly? Doesn’t he seem suspicious? While everyone is tearing their own hair out, with their heads buried in the sand, wondering about their own wealth, Mabuse takes advantage of the confusion and his prior knowledge, and looks cool at the same time, like a master thief pulling off a grand heist (which he pretty much is). A cool exterior belies a secret, malignant knowledge and conviction.
What about Nosferatu? Well, his aesthetic has clearly been well-thought out; Nosferatu himself is a frightening and imposing figure, with his long nails, elongated jacket, and, of course, the unmoving eyes of the undead that, if put on a living person, might instead convey a strong sense of confidence or intention. Given the tone and plot of the film, public spectacle doesn’t seem to play a major part, but a lot of things about Nosferatu call attention to the character himself – attention that is sucked from every human being he crosses paths with (see what I did there?).
In the end, I’m trying to say that the idea of attention, image, performance, showmanship, as featured in the films, seems to belie an internal depravity, a dissatisfaction. Yet at the end of all the narratives, all the “showmen” are eventually caught and unravelled: Caligari (at least in Francis’ dream) is put into the asylum, Nosferatu is destroyed by Ellen’s sacrificial revelation of herself (the idea which I referenced before being a pretty cool topic to explore), and Mabuse (thanks, Jake, for spoiling it in seminar) is caught. The villainy, the decadence, the dancing is put to an end; the jazz music is silenced, and Germany is again thrust into an antagonistic role in the next war.
But I believe that in the end, there is redemption. Part of the reason why I think performers perform is to battle with the darkness within themselves; the famous dance artists of the time, Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky in particular, are famous in ballet history for their turbulent psychologies and the way that affected their art. That’s a story for another time, though! I think Caligari, Nosferatu, and Mabuse, in their desire for attention and performance, are representative of the desire of the Germans at the time to have fun and look snazzy, and try to forget all the bad things that happened to them. Even though they get beaten down again, great performers, when they fall down, plaster a smile on their face and get back up; the Germans perform again, and they’ll keep on performing.