The producer-added ending to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) merged the horrific scenario that went before into an hallucination of the protagonist’s disturbed mind. The savage critique of Germany’s emerging fascism was blunted, but a new dark expressionism survived. States of mind and dreams were irrevocably projected onto the cinema screen. Fetishism and fantastic scenarios ushered in the demonic and the surreal.
The deranged mind in Caligari was revealed through flashback. Cinema moving backwards and forward in time, a quantum leap that thrust the oneiric engagement of the viewer within the frame of flickering images from passive observer to a participant who must engage actively in constructing a narrative. The revealed unreliability of the narrative throwing the viewer into an abyss of incomprehension and confusion in movies like Un Chien Andolou. A fractured kaleidoscope where meaning is continually undone and rewoven before the audience’s eyes.
Akira Kurosawa’s break-through movie Rashomon (1950), uses multiple flashbacks by different narrators to explore the nature of truth. Truth not as fact, not as concrete events, but truth as competing and self-serving ‘stories’ about the narrator’s experience of a crime as recalled by different protagonists. Kurosawa based his scenario on a short story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, which, unlike Kurosawa’s film, has the differing and conflicting re-tellings of the crime left hanging and unresolved. Kurosawa on the other hand pursues a contrived moralism by adding a redemptive ending about the adoption of a foundling in swaddling clothes.
The creative influence of German expressionism on the dark Hollywood b-movies known as film noir through a generation of expatriate European directors is well-documented. One such director is John Brahm, who in the 1946 b-movie The Locket made audacious use of flashbacks from different narrators in a story about a schizophrenic woman who is both a kleptomaniac and a murderer. The woman’s psychosis is revealed through not only a series of flashbacks from different narrators, but at one point, a flashback within a flashback. I have previously reviewed The Locket here. In this discussion, a quote from Borde’s & Chaumeton’s seminal ‘A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953 (1955) is sufficient: “Never has the device of the flashback been taken so far. Narratives are jumbled up, parentheses opened, exploits slot one inside the other like those Chinese toys sold in bazaars, and the figure of the heroine gradually comes into focus…”. Also, due credit should be given to Sheridan Gibney and Norma Barzman (uncredited), who wrote the original script. The ending is decidedly downbeat with a dark irony pointing not only to the uncertainty of the anti-hero’s fate, and an ambivalence about her culpability, but overarching doubts about the reliability of each and all the narrators of her story.