As this project progresses and we journey further and further through the history of cinema, there’ll be weeks when I throw out curve balls. I more or less have the rest of the project planned out, and let me tell you, there are some years where I made some frankly confounding decisions. But, this whole thing is about me picking my favorite film from each year, not necessarily what I think is the best film. But, other times the film I pick is going to painfully obvious. And this is one of those times. Because, really, what else was I going to pick for 1920 other than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? It’s a film that looms large in the world of cinematic appreciation, but I’m honestly not quite sure how far into general culture this film is anymore, because I know my obsession with film isn’t quite representative of the general population. But, regardless of that, I knew that the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was held in very high esteem among cinephiles, and is considered an immensely important film. But, I’ll be honest here, the first time I saw it I wasn’t too blown away. I thought it was fine, but little more than that. So, when I was sitting down and deciding the films I would spotlight in this series, I considered finding a new film for 1920. But, there were slim pickings. There was more D.W. Griffith, a handful of shorts, and a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptation with John Barrymore, but nothing that really jumped out to me. So, I decided to just accept things, and give the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari another shot, figuring I could at least get enough out of it to write an article. And, much to my surprise, this time the film clicked with me. And it no longer became a slightly begrudging chore to revist this film. It became a treat. Because the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari really is a fascinating, beautiful, and bizarre film.
This film is often remembered as one of the most influential and quintessential examples of a type of early film that Germany particularly excelled at, known as Expressionism. In film this was characterized by a general aesthetic that recreated the bizarre feelings of dreams or nightmares. It was a monumentally important style of film-making at the time, so of course different creators wanted to take their dreamlike stories and put them to film. And this included the screenwriters of this film, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Both of these men fought in World War I, realized the futility of violence and war, and were terrified to see the world around them devolving into a nightmare. So, of course, when they saw the world around them become a twisted mockery of everything they held dear, they created a story that reflected that. A story of authority, of being forced against your will to do evil, of the madness in the world, and those who define madness. And it’s frankly gorgeous.
The story begins with a man named Francis sitting in a courtyard with an elderly stranger. The two men are talking about spirits, and Francis offers to tell the stranger a story about madness and evil. Francis tells the man about the small village that he and his fiance came from, and an annual festival that the town celebrated. Because, one year, the festival got a strange visitor. A man who called himself Dr. Caligari, and requested that the city give him a permit to demonstrate an amazing discovery of his at the festival. A somnambulist, or sleepwalker. The city clerk mocks Caligari, but does give him a permit to demonstrate his sleepwalker. Caligari then begins demonstrating his sleepwalker, a man he calls Cesare, and whom he claims has been asleep since birth, and who can be awoken to answer any question, because apparently sleep disorders cause clairvoyance. It’s a popular show, but a series of bizarre murders begin to occur around the small town, all beginning with that clerk who was rude to Caligari.
And, one day, Francis and his friend Alan head to the fair to witness the cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and speak with Cesare. Alan asks the man when he’ll die, and is rather upset when Cesare says that he’ll die this evening. But Francis is able to convince Alan that it was all a show, and they go their separate ways. Unfortunately, that night we see Alan murdered by a mysterious person. And, when Francis hears about it, he instantly becomes terrified that Cesare and Caligari were behind it. But the police find the idea ludicrous, and just ignore Francis. So he decides to get this investigated through a different manner, and asks Dr. Olson, the father of his fiance Jane, to investigate Caligari. Olson agrees, but before they can make a plan word breaks that the police have caught a man attempting to rob and murder an old woman in a similar manner to Alan and the clerk’s murder. The police are then content to close the case, but Alan and Dr. Olson aren’t as sure. So, they devise a plan to stake out Caligari’s trailer, assuming that if the killer is Cesare, he’ll be caught.
However that night, as they stake out Caligari, Cesare breaks into Olson’s home, and abducts Jane. The sleepwalker is chased by the townsfolk, until he eventually has to drop off Jane. Cesare then dies, seemingly from the exertion. And when word reaches Olson and Francis about Jane’s abduction they can’t take it anymore, and interrogate Caligari. But, when they find that he has a mannequin of Cesare in the coffin, Caligari seems to realize that the jig is up, and flees. Francis chases after Caligari, and eventually comes across an asylum. Francis assumes that Caligari is an escaped patient, but is horrified to learn that he’s actually the director of the asylum. So Francis tells his story to some of the other psychologists in the asylum, and they agree to help expose this director. They wait until the man is sleeping, and sneak into his office, only to find a secret diary which reveals everything. The director is not Dr. Caligari. The real Caligari is a myth, a legend about a man who controlled a sleepwalker and used him as a weapon. It seems that this director has become obsessed with the legend, and has recreated it using Cesare. So, with the help of the psychologists, Francis exposes Caligari, and the director is admitted to the asylum as a madman.
Well, not really. Because with the story complete we return to the courtyard from the beginning of the film, and see Francis still telling the story. But, we then learn that things aren’t as they seem. Because it’s Francis who is a patient at the asylum. The director really is a director, the Caligari incident never happened, and Francis is just a raving madman, making the whole story up.
After revisiting the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I was pretty shocked at my previous assessment of the film. Because this really is a massively impressive film that still stands up to today’s standards. Yeah, the little twist ending is a tad silly, and comes completely out of nowhere, but other than that it’s a very well-paced and plotting film that manages to be both dreamlike and relateable. And a large part of that burden is carried by the actors in this film, who show a remarkable amount of restraint for a silent film. Silent films, especially ones that aren’t comedies, have a tendency to over-acting, trying to compensate for the lack of dialogue, but this film manages to be creepy and tense without coming across as silly. Which is a hell of a feat. I know that Conrad Veidt is now most known for his look in The Man Who Laughs, but he’s great in Cesare in this film, giving the character of frightening madness that teeters on the edge of campy and ridiculous, but never quite falls off that edge. Likewise, Werner Krauss is a lot of fun as the arch and gleefully evil Dr. Caligari, becoming a wonderfully monstrous villain. And these villainous performances help carry a wonderfully deep and beautifully designed film.
There’s a whole lot going on in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, so much so that whole books have been written about it. It’s a tale about society of Germany at the time, after the first World War and before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, showing that the people of Germany were fearful but drawn to figures of authority. It’s a twisted story that examines the nature of reality. It’s about a lot of things, and it kind of becomes a cinematic Rorschach test, letting you pull all sorts of meanings from it depending on what frame of mind you’re in when you watch it. But, regardless of all of that, there’s one thing that you can’t deny about this film. Its aesthetic is amazing, and it completely transports you to another world. The whole German Expressionist style is terrific, but I think that this film is one of the most beautiful and bizarre examples of it imaginable. It’s a world that barely makes sense, with crooked buildings, painted lighting effects, and a terrific sense of surreality that really makes for a scary experience. There had been horror movies before, but this may be one of the earlier psychological horror films, putting the viewer in a state of not being sure if the world around them is real, and the inherent horror that’s involved with that. Watching the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a fascinating experience, because you can simultaneously see how it’s affected and influenced film-making for almost a century, while also feeling unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before. And I highly recommend that experience.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, directed by Robert Weine, and released by Decla-Bioscop, 1920.
Categories: Cinematic Century