100 Years of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ – Is It Still Significant?

As the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reaches its one hundredth year of existence, it’s time to examine its significance and whether or not it remains relevant.

Though it wasn’t the first horror film, and isn’t on many lists you’ll find of the greatest movies of all time, this work has been studied extensively, leaving little room for ideas that don’t engage with the historical and cinematic scholarly works. On the surface, it’s a film likely to induce eye-rolls from 21st century viewers that have become jaded towards certain narrative twists, one that has been spoiled by effects that are light-years ahead of the flimsy appearances of the unreal sets.

So why bother with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

Because of its importance to the development of visual storytelling as the first German Expressionist film, and the necessity for film to be approached and interpreted from different perspectives. 

Expressionism began as a movement within painting as a reaction to realism. Expressionist painters used shape, color and perspective to distort reality and express the subjectivity of emotional reality. In Germany, two main groups existed – Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Their works typically featured elongated figures, exaggerated color and nudity in order to rebel against their perception of the established order. In film, Expressionism became defined either by the use of the mise-en-scene to display subjective emotional reality, or the use of any stylization which functions to show subjective emotional reality (this is in contrast to Impressionism, which is defined by the use of camera movements and editing to impose subjectivity upon the work, such as a fade to black when a character passes out, though the latter seems more appropriate in relation to the movement’s origins). Making a subject or object larger within the frame in relation to its relative size, using “unnatural” lighting, or incorporating certain shapes into the setting are Expressionist techniques used in film.

Another factor that plays into the significance of Caligari has long been World War I. German films were banned in America and France when the war broke out, and Germany banned all film imports (except for those from Denmark) in 1916. The German film industry was working in isolation during the production of Caligari and prevented other German films from gaining traction outside the nation (Caligari was the first German film to achieve international popularity). Screenwriter Hans Janowitz fought in the war, and co-writer Carl Mayer is alleged to have feigned insanity to avoid military service. There’s no doubt that their experiences had some level of impact on the film, but the extent of which is debated. Accounts from filmmakers on set, as well as Janowitz’s references to the film’s political themes being “subconscious” in intent, point to the possibility that this relevance is a post-hoc conception. However, their stories are the genesis of Sigfried Kracauer’s criticism of the film as a story about authority and conformity in Weimar Germany in his book “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film.

The film opens in a frame narrative, where a man named Francis tells the story of a series of murders in his hometown, Holstenwall. A fair arrives, and with it comes the mysterious Dr. Caligari who keeps a precognitive somnambulist (sleepwalker), named Cesare, in a cabinet. Francis and his friend Alan go to see the show, and Cesare tells Alan that he will die at dawn. Alan is murdered late that night, and Francis becomes obsessed with discovering the murderer. He visits an asylum, believing Caligari to be a patient – but he turns out to be the doctor, who is imitating an 18th century figure named Caligari. The doctor is caught and locked away in jail. In one final twist, the narrative returns to the frame story, where it’s revealed that Francis is actually a patient in the asylum, along with other characters we’ve met throughout the film. The doctor, now understanding his patient’s delusion, declares that he can fix Francis.

Kracauer’s biggest point of contention with the film is the frame story. From his book: 

“[Director Robert Wiene] suggested… an essential change to the original story, a change against which the two authors violently protested. But no one heeded them. Wiene’s version transforms that account into a chimera concocted and narrated by the mentally deranged Francis.”

In his interpretation, based on testimonies from the writers (which were brought into question by the 1995 unveiling of an original script containing a version of the frame story), Caligari was the representation of domineering authoritarianism and Cesare was the manipulated German populace during periods of tumult. The actions in the frame story undermine this interpretation and, instead, promote authoritarianism and conformity. This reading of the work assumes that the original intention of a film supersedes its actuality, and it’s important that criticism not be bound by such a rigid ideal. Part of what made Expressionist art important was that it didn’t hold a singular meaning in time and space – it was, and remains, universal. Approaching Caligari without this contextual knowledge (which may have been more universal in 1947) allows it to truly function as Expressionist art. Other viewings may not see authoritarianism so much as a struggle between modernity and myth, the dangers of obsession (displayed by Caligari and Francis), the power of the written word/language, and how badly film needs a radical new Expressionist movement. 

The frame story becomes the key to recognizing that the entire film is subjective, with the whole world shown through the eyes of a madman. In the frame story’s opening, Francis sits on a bench with an older man who tells him that spirits have driven him from his home. Francis one-ups him, claiming to have a remarkable tale that will surely be more horrific than the one sentence the other guy said. Since he tells the story, we understand that this is his point of view, and realizing the twist shows that even this scene contains visual subjectivity.

The sharp trees and gravelly path point the way to Francis’ betrothed (or is she?), Jane. She enters as an angelic figure, almost glowing against the darker background – Francis is exalting the woman he loves. When the film returns to this place, the trees lose their previously well-defined form. When the film returns to the asylum, we get perhaps our sole glimpse into reality. The shapes are more proportional and rounded, with consistent lighting and color. The asylum’s cell loses the weird amoeba shapes in the background and harshness in the foreground, while also gaining more consistent coloring. The frame story is far from detracting from the greatness of this film.

The second half of the Dr. Caligari is an excellent watch. Cesare running off with Jane is quite the spectacle as he travels across the angular rooftops. The Expressionist style allows for exaggerated actions, creating the iconic images of Cesare blending and moving with the background. As Francis and the asylum workers investigate Caligari’s plot, there are interspersed scenes of Caligari being confronted with the dead body of Cesare, and Caligari being confronted by floating text reading, “You must become Caligari.” The timing and placement of these scenes – which come before the discovery of Cesare’s body – show them to be Francis’ imagination. The demand of the ethereal text is a projection from Francis’ mind as he desperately wishes for his delusion to be reality, thus portraying the power of the human mind.

One thing to be aware of when watching Caligari is that different versions have different intertitles, music, color and length. The version available on Amazon Prime is an hour and seven minutes long, lacks the famous stylized intertitles, is in black and white with no filters and contains a score that is reminiscent of Looney Tunes. Another version available online is four minutes shorter, has the color filters, proper intertitles and a score by Two Star Symphony that is nothing short of sublime. The former is a massive disservice to the film by comparison, so be wary of which version you choose to watch.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s significance doesn’t lie in being a revolutionary story, an anti-authoritarian work, or even a piece of individual enjoyment. This film is vital to keeping the spirit of Expressionist art alive, and remains a much debated though infinitely respected piece of screen art. 

As we enter a new decade, the film world is dominated by commercial works that are too grounded in our world. Marvel attempts to provide a sense of realism to their fantasy, ‘Game of Thrones’ has been praised for the realism its politics provide, and a desire for adherence to logic and rules permeates film fandom. As long as Caligari, with all its creativity and subjectivity, remains in the film zeitgeist, its artistic achievements can continue to inspire filmmakers and critics who want to promote art within filmmaking.

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