The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Director: Robert Wiene
Every so often a film comes along that completely changes the horizon of all future cinema, and for me The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is that film. Here, we find a quintessential classic of German Expressionism, and one of my personal favorite horror films. It features a complex, non-linear narrative replete with twisted, oblong cityscapes casting oddly shaped shadows, all of which create the illusion of a fractured dreamworld –a vision of horrifying delights. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is haunting and enchanting at the same time, the tone perfectly captures this twisted and nightmarish carnival.
The screenplay was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both Bohemian and Austrian/Jewish German writers. It was initially intended. to be an indictment of. the German government for their role in World War I. The story apparently came to Janowitz one evening when he was walking through a fair in Hamburg, Germany when he heard laughter and suddenly a young girl ran by and disappeared into the bushes. He then also saw a strange man lurking in the shadows behind her. Later, he read in the newspaper about a girl (perhaps the one he saw) who had been murdered at that very same carnival. Thus, the plot of one of the first truly incredible horror films was formed based on the disappearance of a young girl. It was released in Weimar Germany during the jaded malaise following the First World War, but before the release of the film, mysterious posters reading “Du muss Caligari warden” (or “you must become Caligari”) began popping up all over Germany in a flash of guerrilla marketing.
The cast includes Frederic Feher (Francis), Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), and Conrad Veidt (Cesare, the somnambulist) who later appeared in Casablanca as Major Strausser.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with a man named Francis and an elderly friend sitting beside one another on a bench in a forested wilderness. A ghostly woman walks by and Francis says the apparition is his fiancé. He proceeds to tell a harrowing story. The first title reads “Spirits surround us on every side…they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.”
The flashback begins: Francis and his friend Alan are competing to see who will be the lover of the ghostly woman from the opening scene, her name is “Jane.” They travel to the fair at Holstenwall where they encounter a strange carnie named Dr. Caligari who presents his 23 year-old somnambulist, Cesare. Dr. Caligari keeps Cesare asleep in a coffin or “cabinet” and he claims Cesare can foretell the future by revealing untold secrets. Alan decides to ask Cesare a question: “how long do I have to live?” to which Cesare responds that Alan has only until dawn. That night, the murder of Alan is brilliantly told through mysterious shadows cast on the wall (a classic trope of German Expressionism) –this technique contains the seed of the greats like Hitchcock and Welles.
Next, Dr. Caligari spots Francis and Jane spying on him and Cesare. He then orders Cesare to kill Jane, but in a stylized and intense scene filled with dramatic irony, we watch Cesare sneak up on Jane while she sleeps, but he cannot bring himself to stab Jane. Instead, he falls in love and kidnaps her, lead to an extended chase scene. Eventually Cesare dies of exhaustion from the chase.
Francis then visits a mental asylum to seek out Dr. Caligari only to find that Caligari is in fact the director of the institution. Francis reads Caligari’s journals and learns that he is obsessed with an Italian man also named “Caligari” who possessed a killer somnambulist in 1703. Francis and the other authorities confront Caligari about it, but when Caligari learns that Cesare, his prized somnambulist, is dead, Caligari lunges outward in a rage trying to kill them all. They restrain Caligari and lock him up.
The narrative returns to Francis on the bench in the woods from the beginning of the film, but in a twist-ending we discover that Francis is actually a patient in the asylum and the story is only a fantasy. “Caligari” is the asylum director who restrains Francis. The doctor says he can cure Francis, now that he has discovered his “mania” –Caligari says Francis believes himself to be the infamous Dr. Caligari– “you must become Caligari… you must become Caligari…” And so the film ends on an ambiguous note. Was this all a mere fantasy of a madman in insane asylum? Or is Caligari the true madman?
Throughout the film, many of the shadows cast are actually drawings on the ground or walls, and the shapes of building edifices have been deliberately manipulated to appear fragmented and obscure. This effect leaves audiences feeling distorted, out of place, and in a state of wonder. In fact, one of the key notions of the Expressionist movement is Ballung, or the crystallization of inner objects, concepts, and people through an artistic expression that cuts through and discards a false exterior.