Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)


(director: Robert Wiene; screenwriters: Carl Mayer/Hans Janowitz; cinematographer: Willy Hameister; cast:Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Lil Dagover (Jane), Friedrich Feher (Francis), Rudolf Lettinger (Dr. Olson, Jane’s father), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (A Criminal), Hans Heinz von Twardowski (Alan); Runtime: 90; Decia-Bioskop; 1920-Ger.-silent)

“Caligari, however edited, is still a powerhouse of a horror film, a significant breakthrough in style and in expression: a poetical vision.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a must see film for historical reasons or if you are a film buff. Its cinematic influence is tremendous on so many great directors that range from Fritz Lang to Billy Wilder. Its foreboding story and unique set designs (by artists Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, and art designer Hermann Warm) made for a strangely effective visual experience. Black paint was used to represent the shadows that were painted on the cardboard scenery of crooked buildings. As a result of WW1 the post-war Germany economy was in a deplorable state and the studio only had one light to use, which couldn’t light the entire set adequately. So they improvised and used the eerie style of German expressionism to its best advantage.

This unique film influenced the genres of horror, children’s fairy tales, and crime films from the ’20s – ’50s, and by using the same style of lighting and dark mood as these mystery stories they became known as noir after WW11.

The story begins with the menacing appearance of the tiny Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss-he remained in Nazi Germany and later on played the anti-Semite in “Jud Suss“) going to town hall to get a permit to open a booth at the local fair with his somnambulist act. The painted set of the town hall shows all the buildings cramped together and on an angle with narrow passages, low ceilings, gray and black shadows covering the white walls, and the clerks sitting way up on very elongated stools. The clerks react to the mad looking Dr. Caligari by laughing at him, but he is persistent until he finally succeeds in getting his permit.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of murder and intrigue set in the small German town of Holstenwall. Francis (Friedric Feher), the narrator, acts as the supposed voice of reason, explaining to the viewer what really happened. He relates his horror story to an older, skeptical man, as they are sitting on a park bench.

Francis is the young lover of Jane (Lil Dagover), the same sweet girl his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich) is pursuing in a friendly rivalry. Jane and Alan attended the carnival together and Alan made the fatal mistake of asking the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) — a thin, gauntly ashen man, who is under the charge of Dr. Caligari — “How long do I have to live?” and is shocked when Cesare responds, “Until dawn.”

True enough before the next day begins, Alan is seen through the shadows being knifed to death. He is the second murder victim discovered. The town clerk was also killed on the day Dr. Caligari arrived. Francis reports his suspicions to the police that it is Dr. Caligari behind these killings, but the police soon pick up a criminal (Rudolf) who is about to knife an old lady and charge him with all the murders, even though, he admits only to the attempted murder but not to the other two killings.

Meanwhile, Jane’s old man (Lettinger) has disappeared and she goes to the carnival looking for him. She meets Dr. Caligari there and he shows off to her Cesare sleeping like a zombie in his cabinet. Jane gets bad feelings about these two characters, as Dr. Caligari ogles her. So, she leaves.

This seemingly simple murder plot of a crazed medieval-type of Svengali who orders his somnambulist to do his killings, is much more complex than that. That is one of the reasons this film has meant so much to so many different people at different time periods. A case can be made for it as an example of what happened to the collective German psyche after the first World War and how the degenerate ideals of Nazism seeped into the German psyche.

The simple explanation for the film’s success, a success that is hard to deny, is that the subversive story is an allegory for an evil government (Dr. Caligari) that brainwashes its people (Cesare) to commit crimes it wants carried out. By its odd style, accented mannerisms, all the actors wearing grotesque makeup and acting in a formal stagy manner, it becomes a very unsettling film. Through its amazing sets the film best expresses the insanity of its theme and the story only enhances this as the authorities are shown to be either incompetent or uncaring, and madness proves to be the staple psyche of the Germans at the time.

It was brought to America by Samuel Goldwyn in 1921 and made an immediate impression on certain knowledgeable film critics in the U.S..

The odd twist the story takes just when you assume that you know in which direction the film is going is when Cesare, clad in all-black, is ordered into the bedroom of Jane to knife her to death but is instead attracted to her with thoughts of rape overcoming his command to kill. When she screams and awakens her household, he is forced to kidnap her. This is the story that the narrator is telling.

Francis is convinced that Caligari is behind these crimes; but since he kept watch on him and had the doctor show him Cesare in his cabinet asleep, he has to admit that they did not leave their quarters and therefore, he reasons, they couldn’t have attacked Jane. It will later turn out that there is a dummy in place of Cesare. But it is all so confusing, that the possibility exists that the narrator is just making this whole thing up.

It turns out there was a mountebank named ‘Caligari,’ in 1612, in Italy, who had a somnambulist that he trained to commit murder. This asylum director must have liked what he read about the evil magician, as this book is found in his desk. Francis discovers this secret while visiting the asylum and going through the director’s books while waiting for him to return; and, when he sees who the director is he becomes certain that is the lunatic doing all the killings.

The story remains purposefully unclear and bizarre. In its supposed climax Caligari is put under restraint by the orderlies, as Francis tells them his story and they find Cesare’s dead body. But the story doesn’t end on this note.

The reason for the confusion, is that the German authorities interfered with Robert Wiene’s film. He was then forced to use a different beginning and ending to his film, where the entire previous message was reversed. The government did not want a film with the message that authority is not to be trusted.

This story is now viewed from the point of view of a “framing device,” as it appears that all that previously happened could be derived from the narrator’s deranged imagination.

Francis is now through telling his tale in the park where he sees his girlfriend sleepwalking. Both men return to the asylum where they see that Cesare is alive and that Dr. Caligari is coming down the stairs, and Jane acts like a queen and refuses Francis’ advances by telling him that a queen can’t follow the dictates of her heart when it comes to romance. When Francis accuses Caligari of being the killer who was in his fantasy the orderlies this time in the film’s new climax, restrain Francis in a strait-jacket. The last chilling words that could be coming from Dr. Caligari, might go loosely like this: Boy, have I got a cure for you!

Caligari, however edited, is still a powerhouse of a horror film, a significant breakthrough in style and in expression: a poetical vision. Even in its altered story form, the film is still spellbinding and weird. It is even possible to make a case for Francis being the deranged killer of his best friend. In any case, we are left thinking that either Francis or Caligari could be the lunatic killer. This note of ambiguity, instead of spoiling the story, only adds further intrigue. This unsettling tale allows us to look at this story’s skewed world without knowing all the answers. Though, we are left wondering if there could ever be justice in this world, as corrupt powers always seem to have a way of covering up their misdeeds.