The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


*. This is one of those films I keep coming back to. It always seems so fresh. Why? Two obvious reasons stand out.
*. First the look, which has never been duplicated. Influence, yes; but in movies like Frankenstein and The Night of the Hunter the gothic expressionism is dialed down. Because they were less daring? Perhaps. And perhaps because those later films had more money. Caligari is so striking in part because it was so cheap.
*. Second reason: How open it remains to interpretation. Most of this has to do with the ending. Critics don’t like the pasted-on narrative frame in large part, I think, because they want the character of Caligari to retain some ambiguity. Just because he went out and got a shave doesn’t make him the heroic good doctor now. Some residue of evil remains.


*. Another reason critics don’t like the frame is because it defeats the purpose of the expressionist sets. If we’re outside of Franzis’s tortured mind, why does it still look like we’re trapped in a mad madhouse?
*. It’s arguably one of the most influential movies ever made. It’s not the first “horror” film, but it did a lot to build up the basic grammar of the genre. There’s the mad (pseudo)scientist, the threatening shadow, the damsel in distress being kidnapped from her boudoir, and of course the general uselessness of the police.


*. In his commentary on Battleship Potemkin David Thomson describes how that film’s attitude toward editing turned out to be a dead end. In my own notes on Potemkin I wondered if maybe something of what Eisenstein did was on its way back. Similarly, Thomson sees in this film a theatrical visual sense that quickly lost out to naturalism (though studio shooting and elaborate design remained big in Germany for a time). True again, but might things come round? With CGI and the heavy use of chroma key compositing hasn’t film moved back indoors, or inside a computer? Many of the forests and mountain ranges you watch in big budget films today seem less “natural” than Murnau’s or Lang’s.
*. Of course the off-kilter set designs are what get the most attention, and deservedly so. They were extreme even at the time, and film would rarely (if ever) go so far down this road again. Which is a shame. I like movies with a strong sense of their own artifice, as long as they have the artistic chops to pull it off.


*. The look did have its early detractors. Jacob Epstein, for one, was disgusted: “If you have to say that a film has fine décors, I think it is better not to think of it at all: the film is bad. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the prime example of the abuse of décor in the cinema. . . . the film is nothing but a still life, all the living elements killed by a brush.” Pauline Kael also complained of the “monotonous zigzag” of the design, calling it “too many hooks and no fish.”
*. Fair enough. But I like it.
*. A movie with a very tangled mythology and backstory, which critics have worked very hard to sort out. I found David Robinson’s book on the film in the BFI Film Classics series to be very helpful.


*. Since the publication in 1947 of a book by Siegfried Kracauer called From Caligari to Hitler it’s been conventional to draw parallels between German expressionism and Nazism, and between Caligari and Hitler. For the life of me I can’t see it, and it certainly would have made the screenwriters Mayer and Janowitz prescient in the extreme since Hitler was a nobody in 1919 (when they wrote the script and the film was made). It’s also worth noting that before Kracauer’s book the movie doesn’t seem to have been viewed in this way.
*. I love the fairground Caligari’s grubbiness. This is a real down-and-out-in-Weimar guy. His writhing humiliation at the clerk’s office is great in this respect too.


*. That clerk’s office scene also recalls Kafka (not to mention Dr. Seuss). Kafka is no stretch considering the fact that co-writer Janowitz was a rough contemporary of Kafka’s and also born in Prague (which he claimed was an influence on the script).
*. A movie about incarceration: the cell, the straightjackets, the mental hospital, the cabinet Cesare lives in. It fits with all of those studio-bound interiors as well, with the walls leaning in so much we feel claustrophobic.
*. Even the superimposed lettering, which I usually hate in old movies, is something I kind of like here. It goes with the graffiti doodles on the walls.
*. “You must become Caligari!” was apparently the tag line used to advertise the film, which is odd. What did audiences take this as meaning?
*. I like that look the carny Caligari gives the dancing monkey. He knows he’s got a better attraction.
*. Art and commerce. Producer Erich Pommer remarked how the screenwriters “saw in their script an ‘Experiment’ — I saw a comparatively inexpensive production with commercial appeal due to its sensational subject matter.” Even the wild design had commercial considerations. Designer Hermann Warm remembers: “He [Robert Weine] wanted the style and production to appear crazy . . . as crazy as could be. The film would then be a success as a sensation, regardless of whether the press turned out negative or positive, whether the critics killed it or praised it as art — either way the experiment would be in profit.”
*. As David Robinson concludes, “to see Caligari in proper historical perspective we have to recognize that it was made, knowingly and strategically, in the main line of the commercial production of its day, with the ‘art’ element calculated as an extra and positive, if speculative box-office attraction.” We see it today as very much an art house production, but that’s a historical misreading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.