Re-wind to Dr Caligari and his Somnambulist Nation-state: India 2019

Written by Rutuja Deshmukh | Published on: June 15, 2019
Fear and disbelief numbed many of us who were watching enthusiastic anchors on several Indian news channels, announce Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spectacular success in the General Elections 2019. It is now widely clear, even to the most naïve mind that these general elections in India were fought on the back of exploits of nationalistic sentiments rather than any development, unemployment or farmer distress issues. They were undoubtedly one of the most vilely campaigned for, where the Modi left no stone unturned to disrepute his opponents.  Since 2014 the dream of  Hindu rashtra that has been sowed into the collective consciousness of the majority is leading to violent confrontations on a quotidian basis.

 Dr Caligari
 
It has become imperative to understand and decipher the serge of right-wing populist leadership that India has seen from 2013 onwards. At this critical time, to understand and probe this astonishing victory of Narendra Modi and his party, the necessity to look at the history of right-wing populism is both essential and urgent. While traditional historical documents tend to privilege great events and leaders, other valuable and useful sources such as photographs, films, family albums, census records are useful to discern the lives of the larger populace. Films are one such important historical document of their times.  The language of film, the narrative, cites of love and violence amongst other crucial aspects is a vital sources of such an investigation.
 
Can a work of art, a painting, a photograph or a film be analysed as a forewarning of death, terror and tyranny? The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is considered the definitive work of German Expressionist cinema in film history is one such film. But more than its visual style which effectively portrays its disjointed and horrific world, the film is also considered almost a prophetic warning of what was to come in the Germany of the 1930s-40s.
 
The protagonist Francis (Friedrich Feher), a young man recalls the horrible experiences he and his fiancée Jane have gone through in the recent past. On the occasion of the annual fair in Holstenwall, Francis and his friend Alan visit an exhibit -- The Cabinet of DrCaligari, where the doctor shows off his somnambulist friend Cesare and awakens him from his deep sleep. When Alan enquires about his future, Cesare declares that he will die at first dawn. The next day Allan is found dead and the search for the murderer begins. Mean while Cesare is seen carrying an unconscious Jane. The mob chasing them through the streets of stark lights and shadows is cut abruptly when Cesare just leaves Jane on the street and vanishes.

Francis then follows Calligari to mental asylum where he is the director! The local police and Francis discover that Calligarihas been influenced by an occult medieval manuscript, has found a somnambulist and places him under a hypnotic spell, to subject him to his will, even to kill.
The film portrays the mood of the Germans, depressed by their defeat in the war, the loss of jobs and lives. German society was headed towards its weakest and the most vulnerable moment in history. Adolf Hitler would take over soon.

The renowned film theorist and culture critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote a distinctive book on German cinema, titled, “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film”, in which he argues how German film directors foreshadowed in their works, the gruesome reality that was to take place almost a decade later. In his reading Caligari was Hitler and the German people were the sleepwalkers.

More often this historical reading into the collective psyche of nation gives us an insight into contemporary times, where once again populism is paired with a vision of divisive society. This reality is upon us. A disarrayed opposition with no sense of revival or reform, or even survival, has crumbled in the face of Dr Calligari who is leading the nation on a repetitive somnambular cycle, where murders, genocides, lynching and everyday misogyny is performed, over and over. The next cycle begins with absolutely no recollection of the previous one.

Those who refuse to be hypnotized to perform before this somnambulist spectacle are declared either a threat to this somnambulist state or are seen as insane inhabitants, dissonant this ‘civilized world’.

Our somnambulist nation state is so deeply attached to the idea that Dr Calligari has fed us through his ‘performances’, of speeches and personal interviews, that we celebrate the austerity of a man, while we know that in his sleep and to achieve his dream of the Hindu rashtra, he has burnt alive innocent children. We are ready to overlook the most heinous crimes because we feel that we shall be lead to a greater glory by Dr Calligari and his asylum, who while claiming to build a new India that rests on medieval notions that are bereft of any sense of human dignity. His team of Cesares roam freely on our streets and we have also liberally elected them as our representatives to continue this long dreadful sleepwalk.

History has lessons for us, but those lessons require rigour, understanding and empathy. In today’s times our collective somnambulism towards the empty spectacle of development, the fantasies of single homogenous identities have brought us to a juncture where we forget the crimes committed against our fellow citizens everyday, just as the new dawn cracks open.For the people of Germany the forewarning was wrapped in expressionism, our warnings were all around us when social welfare became secondary to profits, and the definition of development became flyovers, flashy malls and photo-shopped images.
 
This seismograph of the collective sub-consciousness of willingness to be violent has just started. Those of us who have been unable to be hypnotized are the ones who will have to endure the pain caused by this violence. At the same time, we will also have to fight intelligently and innovatively without fearing even bigger failures than those we have already endured.
 
(The author is a freelance writer, based out of Pune. She writes on issues of Cinema, Gender, Caste, De-notified Tribes, and Culture at the intersection of Neo-liberalism. She teaches Journalism and Film Studies at FLAME University)