The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919/1921) ***½
I don’t think it would be overstating the case a bit to say that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari is the most important horror movie of all time. True enough, through modern eyes it looks awkward, clunky, and often needlessly confusing. Also true that it is compromised by a cop-out framing story of the sort that would wreak so much havoc with American horror films during the silent era. Nor can it be denied that the outlandish visual aesthetic that is its most distinctive feature is so far removed from what we are accustomed to today that a casual viewer will likely look with suspicion upon the oft-made critical claim that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exerted an influence on the style of nearly every horror or suspense movie made since its release. That influence is indeed there, however, operating as a ripple effect: Caligari influenced this movie, which influenced that one, which in turn cast its shadow upon another— a chain which picks up with Paul Wegener and F. W. Murnau and then passes through Universal Studios to touch practically everybody who ever called out “Action!” with the intent to terrify an audience. It isn’t an easy movie to appreciate today, but it has much to offer anyone who is willing to meet it halfway.
A carnival has come to the town of Holstenwall, bringing thrill rides and junk food and the lurid secrets of the sideshow. Hot on its heels comes a man calling himself Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss, from Waxworks and the 1926 version of The Student of Prague), who wants to set up his own act on the fairgrounds. To that end, he drops in on the municipal clerk to get a permit, explaining that he is a hypnotist with a fortune-telling sleepwalker for a sidekick. Caligari gets his permit, but only after being forced to wait interminably and getting the runaround from the rude and abusive clerk, who approaches his office with the air of a tin-pot dictator. Can it be only a coincidence that somebody breaks into the clerk’s house that night and murders him?
The next day, a pair of young men named Francis (Friedrich Feher) and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) come to the fair to seek an afternoon’s amusement before calling on their mutual friend (and mutual love-interest) Jane (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler’s Lil Dagover). By the time they arrive at the carnival, Caligari has set up his tent on the fairway, and is regaling the curious with tales of his partner, Cesare (Conrad Veidt, from Weird Tales and The Hands of Orlac), who “has slept for 25 years” but whom Caligari can bring partly out of his trance to foretell the future. Caligari’s huckstering has its desired effect, and a great crowd files into the tent, Francis and Alan included. Propped up on the stage beside Caligari is a big, coffin-like cabinet, inside which Cesare stands as motionless as a dead man. But when the doctor invites members of the audience to ask the somnambulist what the future holds for them, Cesare does indeed open his apparently unseeing eyes and speak. Alan is the first to test Cesare’s prophetic powers, but he gets far more than he bargained for. When he asks the sleepwalker how much longer he has to live, Cesare answers that he will be dead before the next sunrise! Needless to say, Cesare is no Criswell, and his prediction proves to be right on the money. Nor does Alan merely die. Like the municipal clerk, he is murdered in his sleep by a mysterious intruder.
Two killings in as many days is an awful lot for a town Holstenwall’s size, and the situation gets most of the citizens in an uproar. Police activity is stepped up, the streets empty out by night in a way they never have before, and Holstenwall becomes a village of very light sleepers. Soon enough, a man (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, of Siegfried and Metropolis) is apprehended sneaking into a woman’s house with a knife in his hand. He confesses to an attempt on the woman’s life, but claims that the previous murders were merely his inspiration— he figured the mysterious serial killer would throw the police off his scent, giving him an opportunity to indulge a homicidal impulse of his own. The police don’t take the man’s story too seriously, but Francis does. He thinks it’s too much of a coincidence that both murders occurred right after the carnival set up shop, and that Caligari’s “prophetic” sleepwalker identified Alan as the next victim. He thinks Caligari sent Cesare to kill the two men himself. In order to find evidence in support of his suspicions, he enlists the aid of Jane’s father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger), whom he brings to interview Caligari and examine Cesare. They’re gone a long time on this errand, and Jane back home starts to worry. Remembering that her father and suitor said they were going to visit the hypnotist, Jane goes not to the house Caligari is renting in town, but to his tent at the fair. Neither Francis nor Dr. Olsen is there, of course, but Caligari and Cesare are. (One assumes Francis and the doctor left his place right about the time that Jane left her own.) And as would so often be the case in subsequent horror flicks, this chance meeting has the effect of bringing the girl to Caligari’s malevolent attention.
Hoping to catch Caligari in the act, Francis returns to his house that night to keep watch over Cesare’s box through the window. What he doesn’t realize is that the somnambulist is not in that box, but rather already on his way to Jane’s house to add her to his master’s roster of victims. A funny thing happens when Cesare gets a look at Jane, however. Again setting a horror movie precedent that is still with us today, Cesare does not kill but merely abducts Jane, and carries her off in the direction of the carnival. The servants are roused by the racket attendant upon the break-in, however, and they get Dr. Olsen out of bed in time to see Cesare making his way down the street with Jane in his arms. Olsen and the servants give chase, but don’t look as though they have much chance of catching up to their quarry until suddenly, unexplainedly, Cesare simply drops dead in his tracks. Caligari, knowing the game is up, flees as well when he learns of the sleepwalker’s demise, and Francis follows him all the way to the gates of a secluded insane asylum. Francis gets the shock of his life the next day, when he returns to the asylum to tell the staff about what Caligari had been up to following his escape. The doctors claim to have no patient by that name, and when they send him to see the director of the asylum, just guess who it is sitting behind the big desk in the corner office...
So far, there is a definite ideological bent visible between the lines of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s story, and understandably so. Its writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, were both ex-soldiers who demobilized from World War I feeling like they’d been handed the biggest bait-and-switch in history, which would probably be a fair characterization of what most Germans were thinking in 1919. They wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari expressly as an allegory of trusted authority run amok, of the powerful using nefarious methods to keep the common people ignorant and unquestioning, and then exploiting their trust to turn them into killers. Caligari was the Kaiser, while Cesare represented all the young Germans who uncritically followed him into the unspeakable horror and disaster of the First World War; it’s surely no accident that Cesare dies doing the hypnotist’s bidding, long before his master gets what’s coming to him. This subversive idea was itself subverted, however, when director Robert Wiene rewrote the opening and closing scenes so as to make Francis the madman, revealing him to be a patient in Caligari’s asylum. Wiene, though by all accounts no monarchist, must have been at least subconsciously uncomfortable with the “unpatriotic” implications of the story as originally written, for his additions effectively stood the original message on its head.
They also put an entirely different spin on the production design, which is the first thing anybody ever notices about the film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari introduced the style that would become known as German Expressionism, and in contrast to what usually happens when something new is brought into the world, this movie introduced it in its purest and most extreme form— subsequent filmmakers would tone things down steadily over the course of the next decade. All of the sets and props in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are defiantly fake-looking, as though art director Hermann Warm had started with the look of a low-budget stage play and then stylized and abstracted outward from there. None of the buildings or furniture are in the proper scale to the actors moving among them, nor indeed in the proper scale to each other. Dimensionality is compressed, leaving theoretically solid and massive objects looking instead like the stage flats they are. Perspectives are all wrong, too, with houses, tents, streets, and especially the carousel at the fairground tilted at impossible angles. Most strikingly, stark, black shadows are painted directly onto the sets. All in all, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s horrific power (which was reckoned to be considerable at the time) derives as much from its unearthly appearance as it does from the details of the plot. The way the script was rewritten, it is tempting to look at all this unsettling visual craziness as a representation of Francis’s own distorted viewpoint, but the decision in favor of radically abstract production design had apparently already been made before Wiene added the framing story. In that case, the look of the film is, if anything, intended to convey the idea that the world is insane— which, again, must have seemed like a perfectly valid contention in the years immediately following World War I. And who knows— maybe that’s also why The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has finally begun to emerge from the film school ghetto again to sneak out into at least semi-mainstream visibility, showing up on Turner Classic Movies and the DVD racks at Best Buy. A lot of folks seem to think the world at large might be insane these days, too.