The veteran film critic Roger Ebert called it the first true horror film (Review, rogerebert.com, June 3, 2009) and according to film reviewer Danny Peary, it is the first true cult film and a precursor to arthouse films (Cult Movies 3, 1988). Now holding a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari first hit screens in the Weimar Republic in 1920.
A masterpiece of “Expressionism”, – an art movement of early 20th century Germany (initially explored in poetry and painting) that sought to represent one’s subjective, somewhat anguished perception of life and the world rather than objective reality – the film was groundbreaking in its use of deliberately distorted scenery. The viewer finds themselves at once unsettled and fascinated by its tilting walls and lampposts, spiky trees and grass. By its very sharp contrasts and skewed angles, by its general surreal and bizarre feel. Executed stylishly within limited production space and on a shoestring budget, it paved the way for further German expressionist films like Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).
The film employs the frame story technique and places a long “flashback” between a clear prologue and epilogue. It opens with a man called Francis sitting on a bench with an older man in a courtyard or garden, telling him of the great ordeal that he and his “fiancée” Jane, a dazed and possibly deranged figure wandering near them, have suffered. The narrative then shifts to a small German town called Holstenwall, where we find an old and fat hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, seeking a permit from the cantankerous town clerk to participate at the annual town fair. Caligari’s application is approved but he is mocked for his proposed sideshow – the sonambulist Cesare. The next morning the town clerk is found stabbed to death in his bed.
The town fair is attended by Francis and his friend Alan, both of whom are competing for Jane’s love, but harbour no ill will towards each other. Caligari inaugurates his exhibit before a large and eager crowd – a standing Cesare placed in a cupboard and coffin box of sorts. The doctor claims that Cesare – a slim personality dressed in all black, with black lips and all too prominent dark circles below the eyes – has been sleeping for 23 years, knows every secret and can answer any question. When Alan enquires how long he has to live, Cesare answers, “Till dawn.” That night, Alan’s house is broken into and he is murdered just like the clerk.
Francis, now suspicious of Cesare and Caligari, begins to investigate them with the assistance of Jane’s father, Dr. Olson. The police arrest a man caught in an attempt to kill a woman. The criminal confesses his present crime but denies murdering the clerk and Alan. At night, Francis spies on Caligari by peering through the window of his wagon and finds what appears to be Cesare asleep in his box. However, the real Cesare has snuck into Jane’s room. He raises a knife to stab her but abducts her instead, carrying her through the streets and rooftops of Holstenwall while being pursued by an angry mob. Cesare eventually drops Jane out of exhaustion and dies. Jane flees and insists that she was attacked by the sonambulist but Francis asserts he saw him asleep in the wagon.
Later, the figure in the wagon is found to be only a dummy. Amid the chaos that ensues, Caligari escapes to an insane asylum, where he is followed by Francis. Francis is shocked to learn that Caligari is actually the asylum’s director. While the director sleeps, Francis searches his office with the help of the asylum staff and finds documents that reveal his obsession with an 11th-century mystic named Caligari who hypnotised a sonambulist called Cesare to make him commit murders in the towns of northern Italy. When confronted with the corpse of his Cesare, this Caligari goes insane, is put in a straitjacket and becomes an inmate in his own asylum.
In a twist ending, it is revealed that Francis, Jane and “Cesare” are inmates in the asylum. When the director appears, he is accused by Francis of being “Caligari”. The director, having discovered the root of Francis’s affliction, confidently announces that he will now be able to cure him.
The writers of the movie, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both of whom had emerged from World War I embittered with the government and the military, completed the script over six weeks in the winter of 1918-19.
Siegfried Kracauer, a German intellectual associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, offered a provocative and far-reaching political reading of the movie in his landmark 1947 study of cinema in the Weimar Republic, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. The film, according to Kracauer, is revolutionary in the measure that it overpowers the manifestation of a mad and tyrannical state authority which is conditioning the common man into soldiers and sending them off to kill others (Francis’s probing into and undoing of the insane Caligari who is hypnotising Cesare to commit murders in the town). But this revolutionary aspect is negated with the structure of the film and the story ends up being quite conformist due to the twist ending. It begins to reflect a subconscious “need” for a tyrant in German society. And Caligari, disturbingly, becomes a premonition of the totalitarianism of the Third Reich.
Further reading: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari – BFI Film Classics (2013) by David Robinson
Watch the trailer below:
Featured: Film still featuring Cesare, Wikipedia [Public Domain]