Throwback Thursday Classic: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920, dir. Robert Wiene) is a classic of cinematic history. Scholars and critics have written at length about this status and other themes related to the film. It would be impossible to summarize all this scholarship in a single blog post.

What follows, then, is a brief survey of some of the film’s major distinguishing characteristics. “Caligari” is a work that continues to influence films and filmmakers to the present day. This is particularly true in the horror genre. One of its major achievements is that it helped to lay the groundwork for the horror films of the future.

Produced in Weimar Germany by Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer at the Berlin production company Decla, the feature-length silent film is remarkable for its period because it had an original screenplay. Many contemporaneous movies drew on classic literature for their stories. Bucking this trend, writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer created the “Caligari” script from scratch. It’s like a stage play in that it presents six acts. But the resulting film went well beyond the static shots characteristic of a filmed stage production.

Based on many of Janowitz and Mayer’s experiences, the screenplay makes then-innovative use of extended flashback, creating a frame story. Francis (Friedrich Feher) recounts his tale of terror to an older man while both are sitting on a park bench. Francis’ fiancee, Jane (Lil Dagover), wanders nearby in an erratic and confused way.

Francis’ story is about his encounter with the diabolical Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who manipulates a “somnambulist” (sleepwalker), Cesare (Conrad Veidt), to commit murders. Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) encounter Caligari at a local fair, where Caligari displays Cesare in a coffin-like “cabinet.” It’s a kind of carnival freak-show (which Caligari calls a “spectacle”).

The writers make use of the tropes of obsession, insanity, and double identity and the techniques of point-of-view and plot reversal to complicate Francis’ story. As a result, the story is exceptionally psychological in nature. To some film critics, it also has significant sociopolitical implications. For example, German-born film theorist and historian Siegfried Kracauer saw Caligari as “an allegory for German social attitudes in the period following World War I. He argues that the character of Caligari represents a tyrannical figure, to whom the only alternative is social chaos represented by the fairground” [Wikipedia].

In the finale, the film’s social and political subtexts reverse polarity. Yet what we now call the “big reveal” is not part of the original script. It serves to call into question the veracity of Francis’ story, making him an unreliable narrator. It also raises questions of whether the producers added it to avoid a perceived threat of public controversy.

“Caligari” is a prime example of German Expressionism in cinema. Still, the script itself is not particularly Expressionist. The film earned the label due to its unique production design. Shot in its entirety on indoor sets, it presents a nightmarish landscape. Angular, dark, and twisted shapes and forms make the film vertigo-inducing, like a visualization of a Kafka text. The dialogue on intertitle cards continues the jaggedness between scenes. The lettering is almost violent.

The acting (particularly that of Krauss and Veidt) fits this visual world. Eclectic costuming and heavy makeup add to the hallucinatory feel of the film. Color-tinted lens frames match the theme of specific scenes with their intended moods.

The influence of this film extends from F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu (1922) to contemporary horror movies. James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931, starring Boris Karloff) bears the marks of “Caligari,” particularly in its visual design, but also in Karloff’s portrayal of the monster. Universal’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) and “Son of Frankenstein” (1939) also draw from Wiene’s film.

In the present day, Tim Burton’s filmography is almost an homage to “Caligari” — particularly “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). There are stylistic connections to many other films, of course, but too many to cover here.