Senior Thesis Part 2: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Caliigari2 (Original Movie Poster, 1919)

Caligari’s writers Janowitz and Mayer’s pasts equaled the tragedy and horror portrayed in their story. Before he served as an infantryman in World War I, Janowitz witnessed the rape and murder of a young girl, which haunted him for the better part of his life. Mayer worked multiple jobs from a young age to support his three younger brothers, since their abusive father committed suicide and underwent multiple mental examinations while serving in the army because army psychiatrists believed he showed signs of instability. The famous film theorist and sociologist Seigfried Kraucuer observed in his analysis of the German psyche that these two men, bitter about their experiences in the war, shared a hatred of authority and believed that Caligari “might lend itself to powerful poetic revelation”.[1] Thus Caligari in its raw form embodied their vision of authority which idolized “power . . . to satisfy its lust for domination, (and) ruthlessly (violated) all human rights and values”.[2]

[1] Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: a psychological history of the German film. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947, 64.

[2] Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, 65.  

caligari1 (Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari)

While Janowitz and Mayer envisioned Caligari’s experimental potential, Pommer and others in the studio liked its inexpensive budget, the studio constrained by the fallen German economy. Originally, Pommer invited Fritz Lang to direct the film but Lang was already working on Die Spinnen (1919) and declined their offer. He nevertheless highly contributed to the film when he suggested they insert a prologue and epilogue to make the film easier for the public to accept. Overall, the bizarre sets and plot would be justified as a projection of a lunatic. Robert Wiene, whose father went slightly insane near his death, eventually became the director and implemented this small change, to the writers’ dismay. Thus, the overall intent of Caligari changed into “the elaborate invention of a fantastic world seen through the eyes of a madman”.[3]

[3] Eisner, The haunted screen, pg. 20.

caligari2 (Cesare captures Jane and carries her onto the roof. Actor, Conrad Veidt and Actress, Lil Dagover)

Caligari opens with the protagonist Francis sitting with an older man in a copse of trees. After his alleged fiance Jane walks by, Francis begins his horrific story of his dealings with the notorious Dr. Caligari and his exploitation of the somnambulist Cesare. At a carnival Francis and his friend Allen stop in a tent to see Dr. Caligari and Cesare, who then predict Allen’s death. When Cesare’s prediction comes true, Francis vows to find the killer and follows Dr. Caligari to an insane asylum. After Cesare almost kills and kidnaps Jane, Francis discovers that Caligari, who is really the asylum’s director, has gone mad because of his obsession with the real Dr. Caligari from an old legend in a book. From there, Francis and the asylum’s other doctors succeed in capturing Caligari and locking him in one of the asylum’s cells. After he finishes his story, however, it becomes apparent that Francis is really a patient in the asylum and the attendants lock him away once he tries to strangle the asylum’s director.

caligari4 (Francis broods in his room.  Actor, Friedrich Fehér)

Distorted and out of focus, accentuated by its painted shadows, offset angles and peculiar perspective Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig designed the backgrounds to provoke discomfort and fear. Incorporating Expressionist styles, they purposefully made the sets twisted, jagged and out of focus to accentuate Francis’s torn state of mind. Film historian and critic Paul Rotha noted “the set enhanced the dramatic content of meaning of the scene” and for the first time attracted “many people who had hitherto regarded a film as the low watermark of intelligence”.[1] Shadows gained a life of their own, heightened by low-key lighting, and symbolized the hiding place of secrets and truths. 

[1] Rotha, Paul. The film till now, a survey of the cinema,. London: J. Cape, 1930,  99.

caligari5 (Cesare drops Jane and flees from pursuers.)   

Caligari incorporated elements of horror to emphasize the film’s greater purpose: to lead the audience on a journey through the thoughts and world of a madman, where they would “share his distorted idea of the professor of the lunatic asylum in which he (the lunatic) and they (the audience) were confined”.[1]  This film technique, mise en scène (put into scene), meant that everything shown on the screen would, in theory, eventually lead its audience to discover the film’s meanings and truly experience its horror and distorted vision. Unlike French Impressionism, which focused more on cinematography and editing, through mise en scène all of the story’s elements interacted “graphically to create an overall composition. . .  (and) characters (did) not simply exist within a setting, but rather (formed) a visual element that (merged) with that setting.”[2]

[1] Rotha, The film till now, 96.

[2] Bordwell and Thompson, Film art, 354.caligari7 (Dr. Caligari) 

caligari6 (Cesare) 

Actors and actresses had thick makeup and elaborate dark costumes to match Caligari’s sets and employed overstated gestures and facial expressions to stress emotions and actions. This “Expressionistic distortion of gestures is the counterpart to the distortion of objects” and gave infinitely more meaning to the story.[1]  Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare were the two most memorable actors in Caligari, well known by their performances in the aforementioned Reinhardt theater. They represented important components of Janowitz and Mayer’s vision of modern German society. Cesare “detached from his everyday ambience, deprived of all individuality, an abstract creature” compelled symbolically into servitude by Dr. Caligari was the true victim, representing the common man.[2] “The mysterious Dr. Caligari. . . (lacked) the merest shadow of human scruple (and acted) with the criminal sensibility and defiance of conventional morality”, an overwhelming demonstrative of depraved, oppressive authority. [1] Of course, because all these events came from a madman’s perspective the writers’ message fell short and favored a conformist viewpoint.

[1] Eisner, The haunted screen, 149.

[2] Eisner, The haunted screen, 25.

[3] Eisner, The haunted screen, 27.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Criminal in jail cell, Actor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge)

caligari9 (Francis about to strangle the asylum director)  

Caligari’s message and atmosphere was, as with any creative work, a product of its time.  As a reflection of Weimar Germany’s environment, it stood as an inclusive “expression of the German psyche’s fear that individual freedom encourages chaos and must hence be contained by the harshest of leadership”.[1] From the beginning of the film, Francis seemed to be the true hero of the story, fighting against an evil manipulator and trying to avenge the death of his friend. Nonetheless, Caligari showed that his self-propitiated vision of himself and the past, like the sets, lacked depth and proportion. In fact, Francis was a victim to his own delusions and completely disconnected from reality. Thus, Caligari in its raw power exposed the German soul, redolent of the German’s collapsing universe bordering between tyranny and chaos and the Germans’ “deep and fearful concern with the foundation of the self”.[2]

[1] Hunter, Allan. “The cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Movie classics. Edinburgh: Chambers, 1992, pg (check this out in library).

[2] Parkinson, David. History of film: Second Edition . ed. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 2012, 58.

cropped-11264352_caligari_241540b.jpg (Cesare captures Jane and slinks into the shadows)

Caligari did not greatly influence world cinema, though critics worldwide admired it for its innovative story and artistic sets. However, because of its release German directors would incorporate Caligari’s Expressionist themes and techniques into future films through the 1920s and establish Germany as a respected film studio. For the next seven years, they created true artistic films, unique to the dark, imaginative German spirit. Of these films, came the first vampire movie, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.  

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