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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari

Robert Wiene

Germany, 1920

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Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 21 October 2005

Source Image DVD

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the defining, trailblazing work of German Expressionist cinema. Its historical value is assured, but for viewers today does it have anything more to offer? While neither ignored nor forgotten, it certainly seems to have fallen from the high critical favour it once met. There was a time when Caligari was placed in a central position along with Battleship Potemkin in the development of the art of film, but I doubt that anyone is going to argue that today, despite all the fascination and appeal that the film’s Expressionist “look” may generate.

Truth to tell, the plot is rather thin and creaky, although with a certain quaint charm, and the actors portraying Francis, Alan and Jane indulge in more of that kind of overexpressive silent film histrionics (for example, when Francis tells Jane of Alan’s murder) than is comfortable for modern audiences. But the Expressionist sets still exert a grip on the audience, evoking Caligari’s world of fear and horror with remarkable effect.

In addition, although a lot of the set-ups follow the flat proscenium style of the day (so, a wide shot will cut to a closer-in medium shot, followed by a return to the original wide shot without any change in angle), director Robert Wiene on occasions places his actors very expressively within the shot. Two examples: when Francis goes to Alan’s room after his murder there’s a single shot with Francis’s face “in close-up” in the right foreground and the landlady crouched over in the rear on the left — giving a very striking sense of their feelings of shock and horror. Or, much later in the film, at the mental asylum, there’s the very effective composition of Francis in black seated in the director’s room at the bottom centre of the frame, with the three doctors behind him, standing and all dressed in white.

Finally, two acting performances still work to great effect today, Werner Krauss as Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare, both of whom came to the film with experience in Expressionist theatre. Krauss with his dark cloak and top hat, eyes rimmed with black working as a mirror-image of his glasses, evokes a fascinating otherworldly appearance. He’s physically at odds with the world around him. His body jerks, twists, and shifts; it moves so much more slowly than the other figures around him. In the scene with the town clerk, although the setting is Expressionist, above all in the unnatural and comic height of the town clerk’s stool, the town clerk himself moves entirely naturalistically. Caligari is anything but — moving at half his speed, and even at one point executing a jerky, crab-like side movement across the room.

But it’s Conrad Veidt’s Cesare who’s the most striking figure in all of Caligari. Tall and gaunt, dressed in black, with his pale white face accentuated by the blackened lips and the thick black rims painted below his eyes and over his eyebrows, he parallels Dr. Caligari’s otherworldly note. He moves at a slow dreamlike pace, with a striking look to him — whether he’s almost ballet-like in the way he slides along the wall one arm stretched upwards when he sets off initially to murder Jane; or his quiet solemnity as his black figure enters centre-frame into the dominant whites of Jane’s bedroom. His is an archetypal figure whose power to impress visually still holds when viewing Caligari today.

A host of myths and stories surround Caligari, most of all in terms of its authorship: Who was responsible for devising the distinctive look of the film? Despite the exterior locations of many of the scenes, the film in almost its entirety takes place on studio sets, using canvas backdrops painted in a twisted, distorted, mis-sized Expressionist style. The scriptwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, whose own personal experiences — of authoritarian figures above all in the military, of a triangular love affair, of a bizarre scene at a Hamburg fair — fuelled the scenario and who included technical instructions in their screenplay, in later years also claimed they had determined the film’s visual look right from the start. However, it’s now clear that it originated with designer Walter Reimann, who produced the original designs with Walther R√∂hrig and chief designer Hermann Warm; and this concept was immediately approved by director Robert Wiene.

Wiene’s contribution to Caligari has rather unfairly tended to be discounted over the years, no doubt because none of his other films ever had the impact of Caligari, because the bulk of his other work has in any case been ignored, and because his Expressionist follow-ups to Caligari, Genuine and Raskolnikov, were so much less successful. But Wiene was at the centre of the creative decisions involved in making the film — the initial approval of the design concept, the variations from the script, and above all the controversial frame story.

Janowitz and Mayer always bitterly complained that this frame story undermined the revolutionary message of the film. For them, the film’s basic premise — that the evil Dr. Caligari, who uses his fairground somnambulist Cesare to execute his murder schemes, is in fact the director of the local mental asylum — was a direct indictment of authoritarian figures in society. In their eyes, the frame story completely betrayed the social and political intent of their work.

This frame story adopts a completely different stylistic, eschewing the Expressionist painted backdrops of the main story for a flat realism. In the prologue, an iris-out reveals an old man and a much younger one sitting on a bench in a garden; the old man talks of how the “spirits” around him have driven him from home and family, before a young woman all in white passes them by. The young man declares she is his fiancée and then proceeds to tell their story, with the first Expressionist backdrop being the first shot of the story. (The young man and woman are only named once the story gets under way, as Francis and Jane respectively.) This Expressionist style is then consistently maintained right through to the climax of Francis’s story, with Caligari’s identity unmasked when Francis confronts the asylum director in his office with the body of Cesare.

We then return to the frame story, with Francis and the old man moving to the asylum courtyard, and the appearance there of Cesare, Jane, and a benignly smiling director revealing Francis’s story to have been a psychotic fantasy on his part, literally a tale told by a madman. It’s true that this frame story revelation does undermine Janowitz and Mayer’s original thesis, the twinning of criminality and the authority figure, but I think that certainly for a modern, more skeptical audience the effect is more complex.

In the end, these final scenes of a kindly director triumphantly discovering the key to the curing of Francis’ madness cannot quite expunge the visual effect of the bulk of the film, the portrayal of the director as the evil Dr. Caligari. We simultaneously experience the narrative closure of the good asylum director and remember the asylum director as Caligari. Isn’t it a sign that there are vestiges of Caligari still in the director in the way that there is still something remaining of the Expressionist sets in the final scenes where Francis is bundled up in a straitjacket and led away to a cell, just as the director was in the previous sequence? For one thing, the asylum courtyard still keeps the Expressionist design painted on the ground, as if the Expressionism of the madman’s story has leaked into the frame story. Then, although the Expressionist paintings have been very roughly removed from the walls of the asylum interior, the distorted angles of the doorways and windows are retained. “Caligari” is still there. The frame story may give us the kindly, concerned asylum director, but the full force of the film leaves us with the overwhelming evil of Dr. Caligari.

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