on 6 July 2015
The 1920 German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is incontrovertibly one of the most important films in cinema history, but controversy rages when it comes down to details. Seen by many as representing the essence of German Expressionism it is possibly the very first ‘art film’, demonstrating that cinema could be much more than a mere fairground attraction. The emphasis of production design (groundbreaking work from Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig) and psychologically complex writing (a masterful script by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer) over photography (static nondescript work from Willy Hameister), minimal editing and even bland direction (Robert Wiene never did anything else worthy of note and was in any case producer Erich Pommer’s second choice after Fritz Lang pulled out) makes it radically different from the narrative-driven American films of D. W. Griffith on the one hand and the Russian propagandistic montage of Sergei Eisenstein on the other. The film ushered in the now famous claustrophobic angst-ridden paranoia-inflected studio-bound style of Weimar Republic cinema which stretched through the 20s most successfully in the films of Lang and F. W. Murnau. Here production designers assumed great importance for perhaps the first time in cinema history with famous names such as Hans Dreier, Rochus Gliese, Albin Grau, Otto Hunte, Alfred Junge, Erich Kettelhut and Paul Leni all making their reputations. With the rise of Nazism many of them along with writers, cinematographers, directors and actors were forced into emigration and their work had an incalculable influence on mainstream Hollywood cinema especially in the genres of horror and film noir. Indeed, many consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be cinema’s first horror film – Universal Studio’s pioneering horror films of the 1930s (eg; Frankenstein , The Mummy , The Black Cat  and The Bride of Frankenstein ) are unthinkable without it. The film also impacted on future art cinema as the work of Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Roman Polanski, David Lynch and others all attest to even if many deny it.
History is one thing, but debate hangs over The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s central meaning. The film blatantly does not make sense no matter how we choose to ‘read’ it. It is neither a radical attack on authority (Janowitz) nor a conformist endorsement of the same (Kracauer), even if elements of both are there. To call it a portrayal of madness is closer to the truth, though clearly we must try to see method in the madness to do this film justice. Jungians will find acres of meaning in the many dualities which pepper the script while art historians will note that madness (coming originally out of early 19th century Romanticism) is a central ingredient of the Modernist project including of course Expressionism. But people like David Robinson question if the film is a bona fide Expressionist work of art at all. Some see it as a mere exercise in commercial exploitation. Many have noted that the heyday of German Expressionism had long gone even by 1919 and the assumption of entirely spurious Expressionist style at this late stage was no more than a commercial gimmick from the German film industry to win back international audiences lost to Hollywood during WWI. Contrary to Expressionism the traditional linear narrative does attempt logical cause and effect progression with the sharply angled deliberately abstract sets seeming to be mere ‘decoration’. The film’s other producer Rudolf Meinert is even on record telling the design team to make the sets as ‘crazy’ and ‘eccentric’ as possible merely because Expressionism was fashionable and was bound to turn a profit. The lack of any authorial voice and conflicting accounts of the film’s making given by those involved make it impossible to assess finally whether the film was meant by its makers as ‘art’ or as ‘popular entertainment’. This questions the need for us to ‘read’ the film at all – why search for depth when everything exists on the surface? I would venture to say that the film works both as art and as commercial entertainment. As Mike Budd says in his commentary on this DVD the film is essentially about how one informs the other – how art (Expressionism) is introduced into popular entertainment and how popular entertainment feeds into art. This is rendered obvious in the film’s dichotomy between story (told in the traditional linear continuity of popular entertainment) and mise-en-scène (constructed in the aggressive discontinuity of abstract Expressionist style). The framing story where our narrator is proven unreliable (he is mad) suggests that contrary to appearances the opposite is actually the case. It is the linear narrative which is ‘mad’ and the abstract sets which are ‘normal’. ‘Art’ and ‘popular entertainment’ are therefore welded seamlessly into one where subjectivity is rendered objective and objectivity is rendered subjective.
I would argue that the rationale behind this dichotomy lies in the film’s reflection of the realities of Weimar Republic Germany just after the war. All art and popular culture cannot help reflecting the prevailing socio-economic and political conditions and there is no doubt that after the humiliating loss of WWI and the embarrassment of the Versailles Treaty Germany was mired in chaos (madness) caused by a huge vacuum at the center of the power structure with far left Communist groups like the Spartacists doing bloody battle with far right groups like the Freicorps on the streets of Berlin and Munich. It is with this in mind that Siegfried Kracauer (writing in 1947) sort to interpret Weimar cinema as reflecting Germany’s need for a strong leader (a tyrant) to fill this vacuum. As the title of his book From Caligari to Hitler suggests, for Kracauer Dr. Caligari is the first of a series of tyrants (two others are Mabuse and Haghi) who function as premonitions of Hitler. For me this view is too retrospective (satisfying a knee-jerk immediate post-WWII necessity to explain Nazism with the aid of convenient hindsight which exaggerates the importance of some films at the expense of others) and fundamentally flawed given the film fails to endorse authoritarian control. I would link Caligari less with speculation on dictators of the future and more with Germany’s past going back to the Enlightenment and the birth of the Modernist impulse in Romanticism. If we must search for authoritarian leaders that connect with Caligari then Hegel’s ‘world-historical figures’ (Napoleon or Julius Caesar – Caligari’s insomniac is named Cesare after all) are much more apposite. According to Hegel in a perfect society the volksgeist must bow to the weltgeist in the belief that the well-led State is the highest form Man can aspire to. This thinking had a profound impact on the spread of Nationalism in Europe throughout the 19th century. The general thinking is that Modernism (and Expressionism in particular) grew out of the ‘madness’ of WWI, but I think it important to see that the war did not just happen out of the blue. It was the culmination of over a century of furious socio-economic and political transformation in Europe wherein countries and societies were destroyed and created with the Industrial Revolution affecting everyone’s daily lives. Beginning in the 18th century, this transformation which is paralleled with a corresponding move away from Deism to Atheism (from belief in the achievements of God to belief in the achievements of man) was celebrated largely as a positive in Romantic art, but from the beginning there was doubt and an acknowledgment that something mad was lurking in the human condition. This is expressed most obviously in the legend of Faust as rendered most influentially by Goethe in his quintessential Romantic work which punishes a man with madness for selling his soul to achieve self-expression. The second half of the 19th century saw Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud throwing away all the old certainties – of belief in God, in class, in fellow man, in one's mind. Mirrored by the emergence of new industrial centers and the breakdown within societies across Europe (especially within the Austro-Hungarian Empire), it is no surprise that madness became an ever-present theme in art and is in fact synonymous with the whole Modernist project. Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899-1900), Totem and Taboo (1913) and Civilization and its Discontents (1929); Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1911) and The Magic Mountain (1924): Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902); T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922); James Joyce’s Ulysses (1914-1922) – these are all key Modernist works which deal in large part with the madness of the Modern Age. All the arts saw a breakdown from ‘realism’ to ‘abstraction’, in music most especially with Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School and in painting from Impressionism through Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism on to ever greater abstraction. Seen like this, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is simply another vision of contemporary insanity, but not one tied just to WWI and the Weimar Republic, but bedded within the established Modernist tradition that stretches back a long time before it.
Carl Janowitz based his script on his own experiences at the hands of a psychiatrist during the war. Feigning sickness to avoid the draft he had to undergo rigorous tests which shook him to the core. Pacifists as both he and Carl Meyer were, they both clearly meant the film as a radical attack on the kind of authority which sends innocent men to their deaths. Caligari (an extraordinarily sinister Werner Krauss) represents an autocratic leader who forces his people represented by the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt scary yet strangely sympathetic) into killing against their will. Francis (Friedrich Fehér) is the hero of the narrative (the good German) who attempts to unmask the killer of his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). The film depicts a series of authority figures (the town clerk, two policemen and finally Caligari himself) who all exist up stairs ('on high') which Francis has to negotiate in his investigation. He finally discovers the truth and follows Caligari to his home which proves to be a lunatic asylum. Further to that Caligari is not an inmate – he is in charge of the institution. If Caligari is the leader and the people are Cesares all doing what they are told then the asylum is Weimar Republic Germany or even perhaps the prevailing societies of all Europe c.1919. The film as Janowitz and Meyer originally had it ends with Caligari found out and institutionalized, Francis winning the day. Unfortunately for them, the producers (on the suggestion of Fritz Lang which Wiene in turn endorsed) added a framing story wherein the narrator is specifically identified as Francis at the beginning and at the end he is seen to be mad, making the main narrative of the film a vision of madness. This contradicts Janowitz and Mayer’s attack on authoritarianism, turning it into a vindication of authoritarianism instead as Dr. Caligari 'takes care' of his patient. This is what Kracauer leapt on to make his point that the film embodies the collective subconscious German impulse to embrace a tyrant. According to Kracauer the main narrative of the film shows Holstenwall to represent Germany, a manic depressive place where people have a choice between two extremes: organized leadership (a tyrant) or chaos as represented by the fairground. Of course, this doesn’t stand up either especially when we learn something that Kracauer wasn't privy to. The framing story had been in place in the original script from the beginning albeit in altered form – the film starting with Francis and Jane (Lil Dagover) telling the story to a party of guests on the terrace of their house, but finishing on Caligari’s institutionalization in a fulfillment of Janowitz/Mayer's original intention to attack authority.
The framing story as we have it really fractures any consistent meaning in the work and we are left to fall back on the film’s central depiction of madness which comments on the effects of WWI and the Weimar Republic, but actually has its roots in pre-war German Expressionism that was most powerful in the years 1905-1913 (the Dresden-based Die Brücke group comprising of Kirchner, Bleyl, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde and Pechstein) and 1911-14 (the Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter group including Kandinsky, Jawlenski, Werefkin, Macke, Marc, Münter, Feininger, Bloch and Klee). Warm, Reimann and Röhrig were all part of the Der Sturm circle of Expressionist artists and one look at the famous painters of all these groups shows an affinity between the film and Die Brücke and especially with the fierce angularity of Ludwig Kirchner. Of course Expressionism is all about the subjective visual depiction of psychological states of mind and in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari we have to decide whose mind is deciding the way everything is shown. Francis is posited by the framing story as the overall narrator and the abstracted sets may depict his mentality – we notice how angular the houses, trees, walls and windows are when he is in a threatened state, but how rounded the décor becomes when he is relaxed around Jane and her house. This is undercut however by the fact that the final scene after he is unmasked as mad (which has to happen outside his perception) is still abstract. This raises the possibility of Caligari’s perception dictating the whole mise-en-scène. It is significant perhaps that only he and Cesare seem to feel at home in the crazily abstracted world that surrounds them. Everyone else around them look ill at ease and out of place as if they are awaiting corruption from the pair of them. Note especially the fierce angular lines on Jane's dress as she approaches Caligari and Cesare's tent at the fair. Contrasting with the circular designs of her house which seem to indicate Francis' relaxed frame of mind, the dress here seems to indicate Caligari and Cesare's newly awakened erotic interest in their next victim. Then there is the matter of Cesare failing to kill Jane, abducting her instead and then enigmatically dying. Does Caligari kill him in his own perception of events for rebelling against his authority? Or does Cesare's 'disobedience' reflect Caligari's own awakened love, Cesare dying in the process of delivering Jane to his master as per Caligari's subconscious desire? It would be even harder to explain these events from the point of view of Francis. In any case, undoubtedly it suits Janowitz/Mayer’s attack on authority more if everything is seen through Caligari’s perspective. His final institutionalization is a powerful image of authority being indicted, as is possibly the very last shot of the film which has Caligari seeming to care for his patient, but actually staring into the camera and leaving us with a very unsure sensation as the film seems to question any vindication of authoritarianism after all. Of course a third possibility exists, that the film attempts to visualize from the point of view of a third person omniscient narrator how 1919 audiences would see the story of authority being attacked and then vindicated in a madman’s vision. Like all great modernist art of the time weren’t the film’s creator’s trying to get audiences to look at themselves and question the madness of the world that surrounded them, not just as a result of the war, but as an end result of over a century of ferocious social transition? Whichever way we look at the film it is obviously of far more than just historical value. We don't have to tie ourselves up in knots trying to analyze in order to appreciate this film as it works on a purely visceral level as will many a horror film in the future. Never again will this extraordinary 'Expressionist' mise-en-scene be repeated however, and never will we have such bizarrely effective central performances as those given by Krauss and Veidt here. Watch Caligari silently manipulate Cesare from beside his coffin at the fair or Cesare materialize out of a wall to enter Jane's room. Certain scenes such as Cesare's rooftop escape with Jane, or his death as his body takes up the angular shapes of the surrounding trees can be placed among the very greatest, the most iconic shots of all cinema.
This is a review of the old 2000 release on Eureka before Masters of Cinema came along. It has an outstanding commentary by Mike Budd and also a 5 minute clip from Robert Wiene's 1920 feature Genuine. Reading reviews of the new MoC version I would suggest that is the version to go for rather than this one. The packaging is more substantial and there's a new commentary by David Kalat. More important, that print has been given the usual remastering treatment that comes from MoC and should be better than the quality here. This one isn't bad, but there is a thick line which runs across the top of many scenes as well as obvious wear and tear on the print. Other reviews here praise the immaculate quality of the newer transfer and that should be the one to get.