Last time on Horrid, I spoke about some of the earliest films to incorporate elements of expressionism onto film, namely The Student of Prague and The Golem trilogy. Each of these starred Paul Wegener, an actor, writer, and director, who was instrumental in developing the visual language by which mood and atmosphere are conveyed in modern horror movies. In this episode, I will continue with another discussion relating to German Expressionism. This time I will delve deep into the film that is considered the quintessential work of expressionism cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
If there were a ranked list of films that were all in on the expressionist movement, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is undoubtedly near or at the top. It was first released in its homeland of Germany in 1920, meaning that 2020 is the film’s 100–year anniversary. What better time to research and spend an episode of Horrid celebrating the movie than now?
Making a Masterpiece
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was first released in Germany in 1920 and in the United States in 1921. It had a budget of approximately $12,000, or about $156,000 in today’s currency after adjusting for inflation. With a runtime of 74-minutes, this is solidly in the realm of full-length feature films. The movie was directed by Robert Wiene, who was also responsible for a handful of other expressionist films, including another horror classic, The Hands of Orlac, in 1924.
The movie was produced by Decla, a Germany film company founded and managed by Erich Pommer. The history of Decla is a bit twisted to navigate. The company was originally named Deutsche Eclair, and it was a German subsidiary of a French film company named Eclair. Before the war, Pommer was the manager of this Berlin-based subsidiary, responsible for producing films and distributing them throughout much of Europe. However, this relationship came to an end when Pommer was drafted into the German army in 1914, leaving Deutsche Eclair in the hands of his deputy, Karl Hubert.
By 1914 German film companies were no longer able to operate with foreign funding, so the Deutsche Eclair company wound down its operations. Having fought in the War for Germany, Pommer was able to leverage his service into a winning bid on the company’s assets. This incarnation of Decla was founded in 1915, with the new name being a portmanteau of the prior name, Deutsche Eclair.
Decla was one of only five companies producing films independently of Ufa, the state-run government film conglomerate talked about during episode ten of Horrid. Decla would eventually be absorbed into Ufa, but not until October of 1921.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Let’s begin with a summary. If you don’t want spoilers for the story of a 100-year old film, I’d encourage you to pause here and go watch the film on the transcript page for this episode on horridpodcast.com.
The movie begins on a stark and cold winter scene. Francis, our main character. is sitting on a bench in what seems to be a park. He is accompanied by an older man who seems to be wrapping up a story of his own. “There are spirits…” says the old man. “They are all around us… They have driven me from hearth and home… from wife and child…” As if she were one of his spirits, a ghostly young woman dressed in a flowing white gown walks by the two men. She seems dazed or lost in thought and walks passed the men without showing any sign of notice.
Francis gazes after the woman, his eye lingering on her form. Francis tells his companion that the woman is his fiancee, and that they have suffered a strange ordeal.
Francis starts to tell the older man a story of his own. The movie transitions now into a flashback, a story within the story. The first image is that of Francis’s hometown of Holstenwall. The town is presented as a painted backdrop, not unlike that which you might expect to see on stage for a theatrical performance. Rows upon rows of irregularly slanted houses cascading together, their stilted and sharply angled roofs jutting into the sky. It’s the first taste of German Expressionism in the film, but the style permeates nearly all of the sets for the rest of the film.
As Francis frames his tale, we are shown a glimpse of another backdrop. Angular tents, standing at impossible angles and flying crooked flags stand as the backdrop to railings at the top of stairs. The railings too are distorted; the balusters turned this way and that, none lining up or running parallel to one another as they should. This is the entrance to the local fair, Francis tells us. The image fades to black, but then returns to the fair entrance. A man suddenly comes into view, climbing up the stairs. “Him,” Francis tells us.
This sequence serves as our introduction to the titular Dr. Caligari. He is a grizzled and bespeckled old man, clad all in black, with wild white hair and a too-tall top hat perched upon the crown of his head. The doctor walks towards the camera, and the picture simply hangs on him. He walks with a cane, his motions slow but severe, his head and limbs shaking and jerking as though afflicted with some disease. His face is contorted into a sneer, his thin lips pursed and his eyes bulging from their sockets.
Francis then introduces us to his friend, Alan. Alan’s apartment has the same expressionist tendencies seen in the backdrops of the town and fair, but these are physical sets. The windows are slanted and the chair backs too tall. Right angles don’t seem to exist, and deep dark shadows are literally painted on the walls. The twisted vision of the world around the characters is an unsettling and constant presence throughout the film. It is this extreme implementation of expressionism that makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari an excellent watch for anyone with even a passing interest in horror. Alan grabs his coat and heads outside. He is handed a flyer for the annual local fair, and he brings it with him up into Francis’s apartment, pestering Francis until he agrees to go with him.
Meanwhile, Dr. Caligari has arrived at the town clerk’s office. He has come to obtain a permit for an exhibition at the fair. The town clerk unwisely snaps at Caligari, twice yelling at the doctor to wait while the clerk finishes his paperwork. It’s a simple enough insult, but it draws the old man’s ire ten-fold. You can see the seething rage barely hidden behind his pallid face. Finally, the clerk turns to Caligari and asks what kind of exhibition he is seeking to host. The clerk laughs in the doctor’s face when he is told that Caligari will display a somnambulist, an archaic term meaning sleepwalker. The clerk clearly cannot be bothered with the request, and passes Caligari over to a colleague to file the permit.
Permit in hand, Caligari sets up his tent at the fair and begins advertising his attraction. Like any classic carnival barker, Caligari steps up on the stage and begins attracting passerbys. A growing crowd becomes intrigued as Caligari shouts about his main attraction, Cesare the somnambulist! Meanwhile, the body of the disrespectful town clerk is found the next morning, having been brutally stabbed to death.
Francis and Alan attend the fair and they too are intrigued by Dr. Caligari’s display. A small crowd gathers inside the tent and the show begins. Caligari reveals a coffin-like box, or cabinet, which he opens to reveal the sleeping Cesare. Caligari tells the audience that Cesare has been asleep for 23 years, and that time has no meaning for the sleepwalker. As a results, he knows all about the past and the future. Caligari claims that Cesare can be brought to an awake-like state through the use of hypnosis, which he does. The audience is prompted to ask Cesare questions and, despite Francis’ protests, Alan approaches the stage. “How long will I live?” Alan asks. Ominously, Cesare responds, “Till the break of dawn…”
To put it in contemporary terms, Alan is shook. The two men walk back to town where they briefly encounter Jane, who restores their spirits. They make their leave of Jane, and the two men admit that they are both in love with Jane. Francis and Alan come to an agreement that they will remain friends, no matter who Jane chooses. Subsequently, the men split up and return to their respective homes.
Night time falls and we see Alan asleep in his bed. What happens next is perhaps the first truly great kill in horror movie history. The silhouette of a figure appears on the wall. Alan awakens and is terrified by the unseen figure standing before him. The camera shifts to a view above the bed, where only the shadows of Alan and his attacker can be seen. They struggle, and the attacker draws forth a long dagger as the scene fades to black.
When Francis hears of Alan’s murder the next morning, he immediately makes the connection to Cesare’s cryptic message. He goes to Dr. Olfen, a physician friend who is also Jane’s father, and they get permission from the police to examine Cesare. The pair pay a visit to Caligari, but their examination of Cesare is interrupted by news that a man was caught in the act of trying to murder an old woman with a knife. The police are convinced that this criminal was also responsible for the deaths of the town clerk and Alan, but Francis isn’t so sure. Dr. Olfen and Francis depart the fair, heading to the police station to see the arrested criminal for themselves.
Worried that her father and Francis have not yet returned home, Jane makes her way to the fair to look for them. Meanwhile, at the police station, the criminal confesses to the attempted murder of the old woman. He even admits to trying to make the crime look like a copycat killing, but the criminal denies being involved with the other two murders. Back at the fair, Dr. Caligari greets Jane and, upon learning that Dr. Olfen is her father, decides to give her a demonstration of Cesare’s abilities. Just as Cesare awakens, Jane runs away in terror.
That night, Francis returns to Caligari’s trailer. He is still unconvinced that Cesare was not involved in Alan’s death. He watches from outside, and sees both Caligari and Cesare inside, the latter asleep in his cabinet. At the Olfen residence, Jane is sleeping in her bed. A beautiful shot is composed, with Jane sleeping peacefully in her bed in the foreground and several large, ceiling-height windows bent unnaturally to the side in the background.
In a particularly masterful piece of suspense, we watch from this distant view as Cesare climbs in through one of the window. He slowly walks the long distance from the window to the defenseless Jane. He comes to the bed and raises his dagger. Just as he is about to plunge the blade into his unsuspecting victim, Cesare stops. He cannot kill her, seemingly overcome by her beauty. He reaches out to stroke Jane’s hair. Just as he makes contact, Jane awakens and screams. The two struggle, but Jane is no match for Cesare’s strength. He grabs her and carries her out the open window.
Jane’s father and other family members are woken by the sounds of the struggle, and rush to her bedroom. They see Cesare carrying Jane across a series of impossibly narrow roof tops into the night. They rush after Cesare who is unable to outpace them while carrying Jane. Eventually, Cesare drops Jane and runs off. Men from the town continue chasing after Cesare who eventually drops dead from exhaustion.
Jane is back home, and Francis comes to check on her. She awakens with a start and screams Cesare’s name. Francis is confused, as he was watching Cesare sleeping in his cabinet while this entire ordeal was supposedly taking place. Francis rushes to the police and visits the arrested criminal, who he sees is also still safely locked behind bars. With neither Cesare nor the criminal seemingly free to have attacked Jane, Francis and the police descend upon Caligari’s trailer once again. They open the cabinet and find that the sleeping Cesare that Francis watched the night before is nothing more than a mannequin.
His scheme exposed, Caligari makes use of the distraction caused by the discovery of the dummy and runs off into the countryside. Francis pursues him, tailing him until he sees Caligari enter into a local sanitarium. Francis follows inside thinking that perhaps Caligari was an escaped patient. Francis asks the attending doctors if they have a patient by the name of Caligari, but they do not know of anyone by that name. Francis is redirected to meet with the director of the facility. He walks into the office and-plot twist!-Caligari is the asylum’s director!
Francis convinces the other doctors to secretly help him investigate the crimes, and the group goes through the director’s private notes while he is sleeping. In the director’s journal they find notes about an Italian hypnotist that supposedly manipulated a sleepwalker into unconsciously doing his bidding. The name of the sleepwalker was Cesare and the name of the hypnotist was Caligari. It seems that the director became obsessed with Caligari’s work and vowed to continue it himself. In flashback, we see the moment when the somnambulist was first brought to the asylum. The director quickly descends into his obsession, stalking about the asylum in a manic state, vowing that he will become Caligari.
The entire story comes to its climax when the body of Cesare is found in the countryside. It is brought to the asylum and presented to the director, who is overcome with madness upon seeing his accomplice’s lifeless body. The facade broken, the director begans wailing and raving. Overcome, Caligari attacks one of the doctors and he is forced into a straightjacket. The director is placed into one of the padded rooms of the asylum as we fade to black.
We return to the winter courtyard, where Francis is now just finishing relating his tale to the older man. The story finished, the men get up and head inside the adjacent building. It’s a large foyer, full of people. Jane is there, looking off into the distance. Others seem to be milling about, aimlessly. Slowly it dawns on the audience that we have seen this room before. It is the foyer of the insane asylum from Francis’ story.
Suddenly, we see Cesare, walking towards the camera holding a flower. Francis takes the old man aside, telling him, “Look… there’s Cesare… never allow him to tell your fortune…” Cesare leans up against the wall, continuing to harmlessly stroke his flower. Francis makes his way over to Jane, “Jane… I love you… won’t you be my wife at last?” She responds that “Queens are not free to answer the call of our heart…” as her eyes drift away and lose focus. In the background, a man can be seen beginning to descend the staircase at the rear of the room. Francis becomes agitated, darting behind a group of women. The man on the stairs comes into full view; it is Caligari.
Francis violently tosses the women aside, suddenly shouting. “You all think that I’m insane! It isn’t true! It’s the director who’s insane!” Francis rushes at the man, yelling, “He is Caligari! Caligari! Caligari!” Attendants suddenly rush onto the scene, and Francis is forced into a straightjacket. He is placed into the same padded room that Caligari had been placed into at the conclusion of Francis’ story. The attendants restrain Francis, who eventually relaxes as the director examines him. Finally Francis lays back, and the director steps away. The director turns to the camera and speaks hopefully, “At last I understand his delusion. He thinks I am that mystic, Caligari! Now, I know exactly how to cure him…”
And for the final time, we fade to black.
A Twisted Ending
How about that ending? While a lot of folks like to talk about it being the first twist ending in cinema, The Avenging Conscience and it’s “it was all a dream” trope predates Caligari by nearly 6 years. Even still, the reveal that the entire movie has been the delusions of a madman makes for an effective bit of storytelling. It also helps provide justification for the outlandish sets and backdrops used throughout the movie. All of these heavily skewed visions of a distorted reality begin to make a certain kind of sense when one realizes that we have been viewing the world through the eyes of a madman.
Interestingly, the twist ending is also not without controversy. The screenplay was written by two men, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The writers are credited as saying the frame story was not present in the original draft of the script and that it was added without their consent by the studio. Film historians tend to credit filmmaker Fritz Lang with planting the seed for the frame story being added to Caligari. Lang would go on to direct a number of well-regarded films, including M, an influential film that would serve as a precursor to the film noir genre, as well as the sci-fi classic Metropolis. At the time, Lang was early in his film career, and he was initially slated to direct The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He suggested the idea of adding a frame story to help ease the audience into the film’s more fantastical elements.
Janowitz in particular has been outspoken about how the framing story changed the writers’ original intentions for the story. Both Janowitz and Mayer had served in the army during World War I. Janowitz had been an officer in the German army, and Mayer had been drafted into service in his home country of Austria. In order to avoid service, Mayer had feigned mental illness, and as a result he had endured a series of psychiatric evaluations at the hands of the Austrian wartime government. By the time the two men met in 1918, both were pacifists with deep-seated feelings of mistrust towards their governments and authority in general.
It is these feelings of anti-authoritarianism that Janowitz claims was the intention of the film when originally written, hence the reveal that the evil Dr. Caligari was the director of the asylum all along. The addition of the framing story, which presents the double-twist of Caligari actually being a benevolent authority figure, completely circumvents the intentions of the writers.
While Janowitz himself has been recorded as making these claims about the film’s framing device, film historians have noted that he only began making these claims much later in life. The general consensus is that Janowitz only began publicly speaking about his anti-authoritarian intentions after reading later criticisms of the film in which these themes were speculated. More of this in a little bit.
I should probably also mention that I’m inclined to dismiss Janowitz’s claims about his intentions as a writer as he has given verifiably false statements on other subjects related to the making of the film. For example, at one time Janowitz claimed to have tried to commission the expressionist sets from Alfred Kubin, a famous Austrian designer known for his Expressionist works. Janowitz said that Kubin declined to participate in making Caligari as the designer was too busy with other projects. This claim is in conflict with yet another claim that Janowitz also made, in which he said he asked Decla to provide “Kubin paintings” as the stylized backgrounds, but that the producers misread his instructions as “cubist painters,” and brought on the art team that actually worked on the film.
In reality, Decla producer Rudolf Meinert introduced the director of the film to Hermann Warm and they asked Warm to come up with art proposals for the film. It is Warm that is credited with first recommending a fantastic, graphic style for the film’s art direction. Warm felt that a natural set was wrong the subject of the film, and thought a painterly aesthetic could provide appropriately nightmarish imagery. Warm shared the script with two friends, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, who would serve as painters and set designers for Caligari. The three men spent a day reading the script and discussing ideas before Reimann suggested incorporating the expressionist style specifically.
The artists pitched their vision for the film to Meinert. The producer agreed to their proposal for the film’s aesthetic style, telling the men to make the sets as crazy and eccentric as possible. When asked about his reasons for embracing the expressionist style, Meinert says he did so for commercial reasons. Simply put, expressionism was fashionable in Germany at the time and he believed that the artistic style would make the film profitable.
This brings me to another bit of sensationalism that you find when reading about Caligari online. Many say that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the first Expressionist film, but this is simply not true. As I talked about on episode 10 of Horrid, Expressionist ideals were being incorporated into film at least as early as 1913, as illustrated by The Student of Prague, and continuing with Paul Wegener’s Golem trilogy throughout the second half of the 1910s. By the time that Caligari was released in 1920, expressionism was actually at or perhaps past its peak in popularity. While I don’t agree with saying Caligari was the first Expressionist film, I do think it was the earliest movie to use the aesthetic to such an extreme and obvious degree. It is fair to say that Caligari is the quintessential cinematic work of German Expressionism, and it was followed by a series of films with similar aesthetic sensibilities throughout the 1920s. Examples include Nosferatu, Genuine, and Waxworks.
A Personal Interpretation
The most famous work of criticism related to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and which may have originated many of the claims Janowitz made about the film, would be Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler, originally published in 1947. It covers four distinct eras in German film history and ties trends in movies from these periods to the rise of authoritarianism in the government. In his treatment, Kracauer argues that the character of Dr. Caligari symbolizes the autocratic tendencies inherent to the German system of governance, and Cesare is the common man who is trained into unconditional obedience. Francis, then, represents reason and enlightenment, as he triumphs over Caliogari’s tyranny.
The addition of the framing story by the studio, which Kracauer takes from Jankowitz’s account of the creation of the film, changed a “revolutionary” movie into a “conformistic” one. The twist ending, in Kracauer’s mind, robs the film of its political ideology. Kracauer’s views have been heavily debated over the years, but I tend to think his ideas are somewhat overstated. This is a viewpoint shared by John Barlow, film historian and author of a book entitled German Expressionist Film.
If Caligari is reactionary, as Kracauer claims, its ideology will be evident in the movie itself, where the moviegoer who is unaware of production intrigue can perceive it. An ideology not evident in the final version is simply not there at all.
I think that quote from Barlow pretty well sums up my thoughts on a lot of symbolism attributed to various works of art. It’s a statement that I would love to hear reconciled by many of my past English teachers. Following this advice, it does make me wonder what else we might be able to infer about the story of the film if we ignore the popular social-political context. The following is speculation on my part, but given Barlow’s quote, I think the following explanation of the film’s events are perfectly in tune with the events actually depicted on screen.
It seems clear to me that the people Francis calls Jane and Cesare are neither his fiancé nor a murderer, but perhaps there are glimpses of truth in the tale that Francis tells. Also notable, the Alan character from Francis’s story does not appear as a real person in the frame story. Either Alan is completely imaginary, or perhaps he is not present because he cannot be. After all, there must have been some event in Francis’ life that led him to being institutionalized. Perhaps Francis did once vye for the affections of a woman with a friend like Alan, but their agreement to remain friends did not work out. This is speculation on my part, but I’d wager that Alan was a real person from Francis’s past, and that he does not appear in the frame story because he was murdered by Francis.
I think this interpretation is also well-supported by the action we see on screen. During Alan’s death sequence the identity of his killer is never revealed; all of the action is seen through shadows cast on the wall. I think it is possible that the shadow is not Cesare’s, but rather belongs to Francis. The murder of Alan may well be the most truthful part of the this part of the story that Francis tells.
The First True Horror Film?
Renowned film critic Roger Ebert is often quoted as saying Caligari was the first true horror film. I was curious as to the context of this quote, especially in light of my own explorations of the genre which I’ve documented on Horrid. It didn’t seem right to me that Ebert, with all of this knowledge of cinema, would make such a basic mistake. Turning to the actual text of Ebert’s review of Caligari shows that he was much more considered in the statement that he wrote:
A case can be made that “Caligari” was the first true horror film. There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial “Fantomas” made in 1913-1914, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. “Caligari” creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.
While Ebert’s actual statement is somewhat tempered by his saying “a case can be made,” I still disagree that there’s a credible argument to be made about Caligari being the first horror film. Even if we are to ignore all of the short silent films, The Avenging Conscience is pretty clearly a full-length horror movie that predates Caligari by nearly six years.
I can appreciate that Ebert may have been trying to make a point about the completeness of the fantasy world being presented in Caligari. The actors, the sets, the costumes, all coalesce into a fugue-like state. The commitment of the production to a singular distorted vision is largely unmatched by prior cinematic productions. So, I agree that this is a great accomplishment, and that Caligari is perhaps more ambitious than many of the films that came before it.
However, Ebert’s remark seems to imply a movie being set in a recognizable world makes it ineligible to be a quote “true horror film.” This is a meaningless distinction and, frankly, one that I think is categorically untrue. Many of the most effective horror movies are set in worlds that resemble our own; indeed a realistic setting often makes a horror movie all the more effective.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an excellent film, and is worth watching if for no reason other than to see the imaginative and distorted backdrops and sets. Movies that looked like this only existed for a brief period of time, but I think their influence on later horror movies is obvious. Although I didn’t really find another place to talk about it here, I also really appreciated the performances of Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare. Both actors give stylized Expressionist performances. Their angular and jerky motions are both unnatural and captivating to watch.
As usual, if you’d like to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the film is in the public domain and the full movie can be watched on the transcript page for this episode on horridpodcast.com. If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]ridpodcast.com. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.
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Until next time, stay scared.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
References & Further Reading
- “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Wikipedia, 2 Dec. 2020. Wikipedia.
- Cardullo, Bert. “Expressionism and the Real ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’” Film Criticism, vol. 6, no. 2, Allegheny College, 1982, pp. 28–34.
- Budd, Michael. “Retrospective Narration in Film: Re-Reading ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’” Film Criticism, vol. 4, no. 1, Allegheny College, 1979, pp. 35–43.
- “From Caligari to Hitler.” Wikipedia, 6 Nov. 2020. Wikipedia.
- Hardt, Ursula. From Caligari to California: Eric Pommer’s Life in the International Film Wars. Berghahn Books, 1996.
- Barlow, John D. German Expressionist Film. Twayne, 1982.
- Ebert, Roger. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Movie Review (1920) | Roger Ebert.