In the period of Germany’s Weimar Republic, a unique and volatile pre- and post-war era within a window of less than 20 years, the German people were experiencing a torrent of new ideological, social, and political shifts. What was once traditional and normal was giving way to the modern and unusual. What was typically viewed as quintessentially German was now being inundated by outside influences, by strange and foreign people and their imported cultural baggage. Whether or not these elements were as directly and obviously portrayed in movies as some like Siegfreid Kracauer and Lotte Eisner would argue (quite convincingly in many ways), there can be little doubt that film was influenced to one degree or another by this state of the German populous. The times were surely changing, and in no film do we get a better sense of what this meant for cinema than in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
On the surface, the basic narrative is pretty straightforward. A young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) relays the dreadful circumstances that brought him and his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover), to their clearly distraught current condition. It began with the arrival of a fair in their Holstenwall town, and with it, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who publicly displays his command over his “spectacle,” the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Soon thereafter, a series of murders occur. Francis connects the crimes with Caligari and investigates to see just who this doctor really is. Francis discovers that Caligari is actually a twisted man, not even named Caligari, who is the director of a nearby mental institution, and Cesare is his murderous pawn. Francis exposes the malicious tyrant, and though Jane is saved before she too is killed, she is nonetheless psychologically scarred.
But that’s not how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ends. The conclusion of the film – spoiler alert – brings us back to the present day and reveals that Francis is actually a mental patient, as are Jane and Cesare (at least we assume that’s who they really are), and Dr. Caligari is in fact the benevolent head of the institution who only wants to help. Was the whole story and everything we just witnessed simply the ravings of a madman? Or was there some truth to the tale?
To view Caligari is to also come to terms with its complex production history and the resulting structure of the film itself, most notably the framing device. In the original version of the film, there was no flashback relaying of Francis’ story. We simply start with him, his friend Alan, Jane, and their subsequent terror at the hands of Caligari. Varying sources have diverging accounts concerning who is to be credited for this new narrative format, the result being undeniably more complex than the initial plan would have been. To suggest that what we’ve just seen was nothing more than the imaginings of a lunatic undercuts the potential and perhaps still latent provocation regarding authoritarian dominance. Had Caligari been a psychotic man holding a position of authority (cut to a few years down the German road and this sounds rather familiar), the implications in this chaotic time may have been calamitous. Were the bookends added to appease those concerned about the film’s possible reading as an affront to individuals in charge? Or was it done to give the picture an ultimately more multifaceted arrangement, no doubt to spark debate, analysis, and box office receipts? If, in any case, the film’s narrative proper was simply the creation of an insane Francis, how then to explain the sequences that are not a part of his knowledge? It could be simply how he imagined things to have happened, like Caligari’s visit to the town clerk for instance, but why would he even be privy to those events having occurred to begin with? As these are just some of the questions that arise upon viewing the picture, it’s easy to see why Caligari remains a controversial film.
This suggestion of madness throughout goes a long way in explaining the appearance of Caligari. If, again, we are in the world of a mentally unstable mind, the bizarre look of the film (in the tradition of expressionism but certainly unique to this extent in the cinema) has some backing rationale. If, however, that framing device were not in place, not only are we in a world that is wrought with lurking evil and cruel abuses of power, but the world itself is a strange and uncanny realm. The dizzying array of pointed lines and sharp light/dark contrasts illustrate the foreboding mind of a genuinely disturbed individual. But while the characters in the film, specifically Dr. Caligari and Cesare, can be deemed “strange” in their behavior, their look, and the menace they bring to Holstenwall, certain parts of the film show that the setting is warped in ways that do not merely relate to their visiting presence. Things looked odd here before these two ever arrived.
Suffice it to say, the style of Caligari is what strikes one most, and what best suggests a country in upheaval. While the German inhabitants were in a condition of unrest, so too is the film. Characters are in a state of abnormal physical being and locations are distorted. Sidewalks lead to places they shouldn’t, people move in jarring, stilted strides, and even the final revelation of the film causes the entire picture to twist and turn and topple upon itself. Corridors of uncertain destination intertwine with narrow rooftops and irregularly angular passageways, all contributing to an illusory depth, a set that looks to go back further than it really does, to expand in spaces that may not exist. The artificially constructed sets create something of an architectural paradox: a layered, yet flat, depth. It’s the sort of thing that can happen in the worst 3-D movies, where the depth of field isn’t so much a natural progression of foreground into background but is rather like sectional blocks of distance. Here, however, the effect aligns perfectly with the intentionally simulated construction of the film and, perhaps, its story.
One only has to look at the still frames in any film history textbook to see where this peculiarity was most frequently represented in many Weimar-era German films, especially this one: the sets, the lighting, the mise-en-scene. The pervading sense of uneasiness, anxiousness, and the uncanny is taken from the minds of the German people and given a visual outlet in Caligari. The set design was a blending of real locations, that is, places that do and can exist (offices, the home, a fair), with a formal schematic that is exaggerated and disproportionate through canted angles, sharp shafts of light, and irregular character movement rivaled by equally irregular surroundings. This contrast between the standard and the surreal is where much of the film gets its power, and where we see these conflated German feelings expressed most prominently. Places the German people were accustomed to are skewed in such a way that an unnerving horror and imbalance is brought to the forefront. The labyrinthine townscape in Caligari, the incessant and repetitive rotation of scenic elements, and the warped images of domestication, amusement, and bureaucracy create a mood on screen that matched that of the audience.
The intertitle text in Caligari is similarly expressionistic. The wording is scrawled across in a jagged lettering that mirrors the sets of the film. While it wasn’t uncommon for silent film intertitles to somehow connect with the film at hand, either through a certain font or relevant graphic, the use of intertitles resembling the set design of a film is, to my mind anyway, not a typical feature. In any event, it’s good the titles maintain this form, for there are a lot of them, and such a stylistic integration keeps the tonal flow intact.
It is also worth noting the increased modernity that was overtaking Germany at the time, especially in terms of intense urbanization and increasing artificiality. This is shown to great effect in Caligari, chiefly in its lighting style (painted shafts of illumination, for instance, not actual light) and in the fact that the whole film, like most German films of this expressionist movement, was shot indoors on a stage. This is a further distancing from the real, a separation from the natural world “out there” and a striving for insular constructed seclusion.
Either way, in the end, it worked. The film was a tremendous success, particularly in Europe. Contributing to this was its brilliant marketing strategy. Gripping posters flashed the film’s slogan of “You must become Caligari,” long before anyone knew what the film was even about. This provocative phrase and the gloriously illustrated designs were enough to entice 1920 audiences.
Today, thanks to the newly released Kino Classics Blu-ray, the film is more enticing that it ever has been for the home viewing audience. The detail of the 4K restoration not only illuminates previously muddled portions of the set and brings new quality of texture to the makeup and facial contortions of the characters, but it opens up the background in a way that existing DVDs never did (one can clearly see the ripples of the curtains that serve as backdrop in certain shots). The bonus documentary, Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema, places the film in its historical context, which is absolutely imperative to a full understanding, if not a more thorough enjoyment, of the film. In fact, the 52-minute supplement actually spends more time on external factors and historical background than it does on the film itself. Primarily, it seeks to explore how the German people began “sleepwalking into their own catastrophe,” covering the innovative figures whose political and aesthetic ideas were forging new paths and influencing the populous, while also noting the general conflict between the avant-garde and the civilized establishment.
As much as it now stands as a cinematic phenomenon and one of the most astonishing visual releases of the silent era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was, nevertheless, something of an enigma even in its own time. The expressionist works that followed would never again repeat this extreme, yet effective, level of self-consciously stylistic design. There would be scenes or individual shots of such elaborate flourish, but a full film that devotes itself so entirely and obviously to this particular style would not again be commercially viable. Wiene’s own Genuine, in much the same vein, was released later in 1920 and failed. And though Lang and Murnau would revisit certain expressionist traits – in films like Destiny (1921), Metropolis (1927), and the first two Mabuse movies (1922, 1933), in Lang’s case, and Phantom (1922), Nosferatu (1922), and Faust (1926), in Murnau’s – they would move well beyond such an explicit and persistent expressionistic formula.
It is remarkable that during this period of turmoil and strife, these great filmic artists were able to tap into the popular zeitgeist and create works of such telling beauty, their far-reaching influence ultimately spanning the globe (most prominently in the approach to light- and shadow-play seen later in American noir). All the same though, even if German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had not had such a meaningful and lasting cinematic power, what stands alone as simply the products of this Weimar era are extremely valuable artistic artifacts and cultural statements. The films of the time are revealing windows into German minds, souls, fears, and anxieties. If landmarks in international cinema history happened to be produced along the way, so much the better.