Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most visually frightening and bizarre horror films of all time and the quintessential film that started the German Expressionism movement in early German cinema. German Expressionism is a style that was largely confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I and usually involved surreal set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets. Most films that helped categorize German Expressionism include films like The Golem, Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Gambler, M and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. And yet none of those films were as expressive and abstract with its bizarre sense of style than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which puts the viewer under its eerie and creepy spell. Many artists over the years have taken from this visual style and yet no other film has equaled The Cabinet of Caligari's haunting poetic power of horror and hypnotizing seduction. When first viewing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first thing you will notice is its bizarre German Expressionistic style. The world that these characters inhabit are full of sharp hostile landscapes and environments of abstract shapes, bizarre angles, twisted shadows and distorted sets. The building architecture is off kilter and many of the props seem to be painted on floors and walls to represent light and shadows that are geometrically off-balance.
The film opens with six acts as the first act begins with a man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly companion in a wooden area sharing stories when a distracted-looking woman, Jane (Lil Dagover), passes by. Francis calls her his fiancée and says to his companion, "What she and I lived through is stranger still than what you have lived through"... Francis then starts to narrate an interesting tale as the film flashes back to his story. Francis begins his story saying, "him" as Dr. Caligari walks up a tall twisted stairway entering the frame with the city landscape in the background.
Frances has a friend Alan in which they are both competing to be married to the lovely Jane. The two friends realize a carnival opened in their local mountain village of Holstenwall and as they leave Caligari enters to talk to the town clerk and is ordered to wait. Caligari tells the town clerk he wants to apply for a permit to present a spectacle to the fair. The town clerk asks what this spectacle is and Caligari says, "A Somnambulist." The carnival opens as children and adults attend as Caligari slowly walks into the shot observing the fair. He then rings a bell and unrolls a large flag announcing to everyone, "Step right up! Presenting here for the first time...Cesare the Somnambulist!"
That night the first of many murders occurs as the town clerk is killed with what is said to be a strange painted instrument. The next morning Francis and Alan attend the carnival and they attend the showing of Caligari as he announces to everyone to step inside his tent and see Cesare the Somnambulist (Conrad Veidt), who has slept for twenty-three years continuously and whom the doctor keeps asleep in a coffin-like cabinet controlling him hypnotically, and displaying him as an attraction. Caligari tells the audience he will then awake him for the first time as he calls him out by name. Cesare's eyes slowly open up as he steps out of the coffin and Caligari tells the audience, "Cesare the Somnambulist will answer all your questions...Cesare knows every secret...Cesare knows the past and sees the future..."
When Alan steps forward and asks Cesare how long he will live, Cesare bluntly replies that Alan will die before the dawn tomorrow. Later that evening walking in the street and not thinking much of that prophecy, Alan and Francis see a reward sign for the murder of the town clerk. They also run into Jane in the street as she walks between the both of them holding their hands. Before Alan and Francis head on their separate ways they tell each other how they know they both love Jane but whomever she chooses the both of them shall still remain friends. That night while Alan is sleeping in his bed a shadow approaches from his bed and he gets up and has a altercation with a person who stabs him to death.
That morning Francis is told of Alan's violent death at the hands of some shadowy figure and Francis is distraught. He then realizes that the prophecy that was revealed by the Somnambulist came true and he quickly heads to the authorities to get to the bottom of this mystery. When he leaves the police station he runs into Jane and tells her the horrific news on Alan. In a disturbing scene, Caligari is in his home as he opens up Somnambulist's coffin and sits him up right and feeds him with a spoon.
That exact evening Francis and the police inspector decide to go investigate Caligari and his Cesare while a man in another part of the town attempts to murder a woman and is arrested by the police. When the man is brought into the station he is found with the similar murder weapon that was used in the two recent unsolved murders. When Francis and the police inspector hear about this arrest they leave Caligari's house. As they leave you see Caligari let out an evil crackle as he slowly heads back into his home.
When the inspector and Francis both arrive at the station to question the suspect the man explains to them that he did try to murder the old woman but did not murder the other two victims. He only chose to use the same weapon to have the police link it to the other murderer; but no one believes him and the police lock him up. Later on that day Jane goes out looking for her father and when walking past Caligari's home she asks him if he had seen her. He tells her he has not and invites her in to show her something. When he shows her Somnambulist in his coffin, Jane gets near Somnambulist and suddenly his eyes open and Jane runs off frightened. That evening the Somnambulist enter's Jane's window while she is asleep and approaches her bed.
He is about to stab her to death but stops to admire her beauty. She quickly wakes up and is frantic and the two have an altercation as she passes out and the Somnambulist picks her up carries her outside of her house and onto the roof, pursued by the townsfolk. Finally, after a long chase across a distorted bridge, Cesare releases Jane, falls over from exhaustion, and dies. That very same evening Francis does his own investigating and searches Caligari's tent and arrives at Caligari's home spending the whole night waiting outside Caligari's house to see if either of them leave for the night. Early that next morning after recovering Jane, Francis questions her and she tells him that it was Cesare Somnambulist. Francis believes that is impossible since he watched him for hours the night before and only saw him sleeping.
Francis heads back to the police station to see if the prisoner that was arrested after the attempted murder is still secure in his cell. When he sees that he is, Francis and the police inspector's men head to Caligari's home to search it. When they inspect the coffin and open it up they see Somnambulist asleep in his coffin. When they move him to wake him up they realize that Somnambulist is merely a dummy and not the real person. Caligari realizes they discovered his secret and quickly takes off with Frances following close from behind across the distorted bridge and Frances ends up at a local insane asylum.
When he enters the main hall of the building he asks the doctors if they ever had a patient there by the name of Caligari, only to be shocked to discover that Caligari is the asylum's director when led to his office. That evening while Dr. Caligari's asleep in his villa, Francis with the help of some of Caligari's oblivious colleagues at the asylum search Dr. Caligari's office. While rummaging through old records and journals they discover Dr. Caligari being obsessed with the story of a mythical monk called Caligari, who, in 1703, visited towns in northern Italy and similarly used a somnambulist under his control to kill people.
Dr. Caligari, insanely driven to see if such a situation could actually occur, deemed himself the name "Caligari" and has since successfully carried out his string of proxy murders. While reading these journals the film flashes back to show Dr. Caligari's idea form into a plan as he uses a comatose patient of his to carry it out; who eventually becomes Somnambulist. After he successfully brainwashes his comatose patient to be his slave Somnambulist there is a frightening scene of Caligari's obsession with his newfound name of Caligari and stature as he seems to see the name Caligari appear everywhere he looks.
Francis and the asylum's other doctors send the authorities to Caligari's office, where Caligari finally unmasks himself and reveals his lunacy when he is shown that his beloved slave Cesare has died. Caligari suddenly becomes hysterical and the doctors restrain him putting him into a straight jacket and imprisoning him in his own asylum.
After Francis is finished telling his story to his older companion they head out of the wooded area and enter what looks like the main hall of the mental asylum. Many other patients are there as well including Cesare who Francis warns his companion to not tell him his future or he will die. Francis's love Jane is also there and Francis proposes to her but she seems to be in a psychodophic state in which she believes herself to be a queen. When the insane asylum director arrives it is in fact Dr. Caligari himself and when Francis sees him he becomes frantic yelling, "you all think that...I'm insane! It isn't true! It's the director who's insane! Caligari!!" Francis has to be restrained by several doctors and be forced into a straight jacket. After this outburst the director believes he can now cure his patient Francis's delusion knowing that Francis believes he is a man named Caligari.
Much of the style that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari embodied was of German Expressionism, which was one of many creative styles and movements that came out of Germany after their defeat in World War I. UFA studios which was Germany's principal film studio at that time, decided for the film industry to go private which largely confined Germany and isolated the country from the rest of the world. In 1916, the government had banned any foreign films in the nation, and so the demand from theaters to generate films led to the rise of film production from 24 films released in 1914 to a high 130 films in 1918.
German Expressionism and its aesthetics was first derived from German Romanticism and of architecture, painting, and of the stage, most famously from German set designers Herman Warm, Walter Rorhig, and Walter Reimann. Much of German Expressionism's style and design expressed interior realities via exterior realities and emotionalism rather than objectivity or realism. Many films of German Expressionism used bizarre set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. The world that characters inhabit in a German Expressionism film are full of exaggerated landscapes and environments of abstract shapes, angles, shadows and distorted sets. The building architecture is off kilter, jagged and many of the props seem to be geometrically off-balance. This unusual visual look is intentional off course to give the viewer a feeling of inner emotional reality rather than realism. It's unsettling sets of instability gives the feeling of claustrophobia and space collapsing around the viewer.
The actor's in German Expressionism films usually wear heavy make-up, their acting is greatly exaggerated and their movements are jerky and unnatural to blend in with the stylistic and abstract environment. German Expressionistic's odd and distorted style are as unrealistic as the dilution of its main character who's narrative is a good contrast to its style as it revolves around such themes as psychology, fantasy, madness, betrayal and murder as its creators used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than realism or what was on the surface. Most films that helped categorize German Expressionism include several of Fritz Lang's silent films most importantly Metropolis, M and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel are also considered landmarks of German Expressionism, with some critics looking at the aesthetics of German Expressionism as the early beginnings of American film-noir.
The two writers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which were Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer first met in Berlin soon after World War I. The two men considered the new film medium as a new type of artistic expression – visual storytelling that necessitated collaboration between writers and painters, cameramen, actors, directors. They felt that film was the ideal medium through which to both call attention to the emerging pacifism in postwar Germany and exhibit radical anti-bourgeois art. Although neither had associations with any Berlin film company, they decided to develop a plot. As both were enthusiastic about Paul Wegener's works, they chose to write a horror film.
The duo drew from past experiences. Janowitz had disturbing memories of a night during 1913, in Hamburg. After leaving a fair he had walked into a park bordering the Holstenwall and glimpsed a stranger as he disappeared into the shadows after having mysteriously emerged from the bushes. The next morning, a young woman's ravaged body was found. Mayer was still angered about his sessions during the war with an autocratic, highly ranked, military psychiatrist. At night, Janowitz and Mayer often went to a nearby fair. One evening, they saw a sideshow called 'Man and Machine', in which a man did feats of strength and predicted the future while supposedly in a hypnotic trance. Inspired by this, Janowitz and Mayer devised their story that night and wrote it in the following six weeks and the name Caligari came from a book Mayer had read, in which an officer named Caligari was mentioned.
When the duo approached producer Erich Pommer about the story, Pommer tried to have them thrown out of his small Decla-Bioscop studio. But when they insisted on telling him their film story, Pommer was so impressed that he bought it on the spot, and agreed to have the film produced in expressionistic style, partly as a concession to his studio only having a limited quota of power and light. Pommer put Caligari in the hands of designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, whom he had met as a soldier while painting sets for a German military theater.
When Pommer began to have second thoughts about how the film should be designed, they had to convince him that it made sense to paint lights and shadows directly on set walls, floors, background canvases and to place flat sets behind the actors. Pommer first approached the great director Fritz Lang to direct this film, but Lang was committed to work on Die Spinnen so Pommer gave directorial duties to Robert Wiene. Wiene filmed a test scene to prove Warm, Reimann, and Röhrig's theories, and it was so impressive that Pommer gave his artists free rein. Janowitz, Mayer, and Wiene would later use the same artistic methods on another production, Genuine, which was less successful commercially and critically. Filming took place during December 1919, and January 1920. The film's highly stylized sets were constructed out of paper, with the strange shadowy patterns and twisted geometric shapes painted on the walls.
The film premiered at the Marmorhaus in Berlin on February 26, 1920. Critics worldwide have praised the film for its Expressionist style, complete with its wild, distorted set design. Caligari has been cited as an influence on Film noir, one of the earliest horror films, and a model for directors for many decades. Upton Sinclair wrote They Call Me Carpenter in 1922. This book began with a crowd of people trying to keep Americans from seeing Caligari because this story of a madman didn't serve the purpose of art, morality. His question was whether art was to serve morality or if art exists for art's sake.
Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler novel describes that the film can be considered as an allegory for German social attitudes in the period following World War I. However, in Weimar Cinema and After, Thomas Elsaesser describes the legacy of Kracauer's work as a "historical imaginary" arguing that Kracauer had not studied enough films to make his thesis about the social mindset of Germany legitimate and that the discovery and publication of the original screenplay of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari undermines his argument about the revolutionary intent of its writers. Elsaesser's alternative thesis is that the filmmakers adopted an Expressionist style as a method of product differentiation, establishing a distinct national product against the increasing importation of American films.
If the first and last scenes of the film seem to be as if they are not organic to the over-all film, it is because they were in fact added in after political pressure was applied to the director of the film. The 'bookends' were filmed and spliced into the story to ensure authority (represented by Dr. Caligari) was not subject to question or depicted as insane. The film was originally going to be directed by the legendary director Fritz Lang, who later did the science fiction epic Metropolis and the serial killer police procedural M. However, even though Lang was interested in the assignment, he ultimately decided to work on another film project instead.
During the 1920s it was the decade where audiences saw the rise of the Dadi and Surrealist movements in which its intentions were to reject all pretense and sincerity in the cinema. It was a bold and profound expression of bleak hopelessness, grim satire and alienation. The rise of the Surrealism movement led to the famous works of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's masterpieces Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or in which surrealistic films broke free and rejected traditional values and sought to overthrow society with its bleak themes of anarchy, dreams, psychosis and the unconscious mind. Many believe these movements were a reaction to the horror of World War I, which upset decades of tranquility and order, and threw the European nations into unstable new relationships with the rest of the world. After people witnessed the brutality and instability of warfare and death, it would be difficult to return to landscapes of order, government and peace.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari must have been an unsettling and slightly disturbing film to witness in 1919. The sets are presented in mostly long shots, which establish their spiky and ragged points and edges, giving off an immediate threat to the characters and to its audience. The visual environment plays like a threatening jungle of blades and sharp edges; which is to give an emotional feeling of danger that denies the characters any safety or peaceful place at rest. It isn't surprising that the horrifying and bold Caligari set design inspired so few other films afterward, even though its technique with shadows and light certainly inspired the American film-noir. The original Variety review, which cheerfully reveals the ending, tries in its stilted wording to express enthusiasm: "This has resulted in a series of actions so perfectly dovetailed as to carry the story through at a perfect tempo. Robert Wiene has made perfect use of settings designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig, settings that squeeze and turn and adjust the eye and through the eye the mentality."
The Cabinet of Caligari is one of the most profound and important films of the German Expressionistic movements and even after 90 years the film manages to put audiences under its eerie spell. Many artists have taken from this visual style and yet no other film has equaled its poetic power of horror and seduction. In an interesting book From Caligari to Hitler, an art historian Siegfried Kracauer argued that this film foreseen the upcoming rise of Nazism in the later years of Germany because of the way the German Expressionistic style was used which showed a world of unbalance, distorted angels, murder and madness. In the book it is said that Caligari was Hitler and the German people were the sleep-walker's hypnotized under Caligari's spell. I actually believe that is ridiculous, even though I do believe the film brought upon the popularity of the horror genre and of the monster movies; as you can see early hints of the Cesare characteristics later transforming to Boris Karloff as the iconic Frankenstein in later Universal American horror films of the 30s. I watched the film on a restored Kino DVD and there were many tinted colored scenes so the audience could see a distinction of the day scenes and the night scenes and there weren't any pure black and white shots. The sets are very eerie with there spiky ragged edges and that large scenery shot of the city which clearly looks like a cardboard painted background. And yet touches like that is what gives the film its creepy and claustrophobic power, because you feel uncomfortable knowing something that you are viewing doesn't seem quite right. Even though several of the themes of the film like mob mentality and brainwashing does ironically give a frightening prophecy in itself because of the gradual rise of the Nazi Party; the one film that always comes to mind when viewing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is Fritz Lang's masterpiece The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. That film is actually a sequel to an earlier film titled The Gambler and tells the frightening tale of a criminal masterpiece who even when incarcerated knows how to hypnotize his men to carry out horrific murders. The film was released in 1933 and had several anti-Nazi slogans in the film for which Joseph Goebbels Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda delayed the film and ordered changes to be done. Actor Conrad Veidt was a refuge a German who fled the rise of Hitler and arrived in America starring in several iconic roles, most famously the lead in the silent classic The Man Who Laughs and the character of Major Strasser in the American masterpiece Casablanca. The Cabinet of Caligari was not only considered one of the first major horror films but one of the first to establish a twist ending which was never really done before in film. Interestingly enough the producers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at first wanted a less macabre ending, imposing upon the directors idea that everything turns out to be Francis's delusion throughout the whole film. In so doing, they produced (but not filmed) the first alternate ending where Caligari and Cesare were real and were responsible for the murders in the town, but they pressured against it because they didn't want to question a man of authority and education or label them as crazy or insane. The Cabinet of Caligari is not only one of the landmark horror films which set the standard for all others that followed, but it's Expressionist style of light and shadows would also help bring upon the American film-noirs of the 1940's.