YOU MUST BECOME CALIGARI.
When I studied film, Siegfrid Kracauer’s classic book “From Caligari to Hitler” from 1947 was required reading. I don’t remember much from it, but we did see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in class. Kracauer drew a straight line from Caligari to the rise of totalitarianism and Adolf Hitler, viewing the doctor as a symbol of a tyrant who can make people do bad things. Kracauer has not escaped criticism over his theories, but his book is still the authoritative account of German film history and its link to politics. After taking a second look at this film, I feel like reading it again.
The story begins with Francis (Friedrich Feher) sitting on a bench with an older man, telling him how he and his fiancee Jane (Lil Dagover) came to suffer. It all started in the village of Holstenwall, where Francis and his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are both infatuated with Jane. There’s a fair in town and a stranger called Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) gets a permit to have a presentation featuring a somnambulist called Cesare (Conrad Veidt). When Francis and Alan visit Caligari’s presentation, the doctor wakes Cesare, who’s sleeping in a coffin-like box, and tells the audience to ask him questions. Alan comes up with “How long will I live?” and gets the horrifying answer “Until dawn”. What happens next comes as no surprise…
Shortly after World War I, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz met and started writing this film. Both had very negative experiences from authority, Janowitz after serving in the war, Mayer after pretending to be crazy and being thoroughly examined by a military psychiatrist. When they met, both had become convinced pacifists and believed that the German government had led the people to ruin in the war. It was easy to draw comparisons between the characters and events of the film and how Germany had been led astray during the war, but some say it was subconsciously done. When the script was ready to be filmed, Fritz Lang (who would go on to have a very successful career in Germany and Hollywood later) was involved at an early stage, but Robert Wiene ended up as director. He was introduced to the designer Hermann Warm who brought along two artists, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who were part of German Expressionism. Watching this film is a lot like stepping into an Expressionist painting, with abstract, pointed, twisted and leaning sets; nothing looks straight or organized. It all reflects a nightmare and adds to the film’s sense of horror, perhaps the clearest example of the importance of production design that cinema has ever produced. Shooting it all entirely in a studio where you could create and control the perfect look for the film made it seem like a no-brainer to reject a naturalistic approach. Wandering around these sets are the wild-eyed Caligari and the eerie Cesare who looks like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire. There’s a scene where he attacks Jane that must have inspired the makers of Nosferatu two years later. Indeed, several other films with a similar style would follow.
We’re meant to sympathize with the ordinary folks, Francis, Alan and Jane, although they remain somewhat bland in spite of very dramatic performances. The acting is typical of silent pictures, but its flamboyant style gets a different meaning after the revelations of the brilliant final twist. The story may be in the shape of a traditional thriller, but the film’s many layers and towering artistic ambitions shows how this industry was thriving at an early stage – especially in Germany.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920-Germany. Silent. 69 min. B/W. Produced by Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer. Directed by Robert Wiene. Screenplay: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz. Production Design: Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm. Cast: Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Lil Dagover (Jane), Friedrich Fehrer (Francis), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger.
Trivia: Original title: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Remade as The Cabinet of Caligari (1962) and The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez (1991).
Last word: “The German film industry made ‘stylized films’ to make money. Let me explain. At the end of World War I the Hollywood industry moved toward world supremacy. The Danes had a film industry. The French had a very active film industry, which suffered an eclipse at the end of the war. Germany was defeated: how could she make films that would compete with the others? It would have been impossible to try and imitate Hollywood or the French. So we tried something new; the Expressionist or stylized films. This was possible because Germany had an overflow of good artists and writers, a strong literary tradition, and a great tradition of theater.” (Pommer, “From Caligari to California”)