By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, horror had fully established itself as a genre in the new medium of cinema. Early filmmakers quickly latched onto the rising popularity of a wave of gothic literature that emerged during the late-nineteenth and early part of the new century, created by writers such as Bram Stoker and M.R. James, etc. German filmmakers were in the vanguard of this trend, and by 1916 an early film version of Gaston Leroux’s serialised 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera had already been released, while Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was the subject of numerous movie interpretations that appeared throughout Europe in countries such as Denmark, Russia, Hungary and America, as well as Germany. The German actor, poet, philosopher, and writer of a particularly dark strain of the new gothic occult literature, Hanns Heinz Ewers, had a particularly robust influence on the development of Germany’s part in this forging of horror as a suitable cinematic subject, adapting his own take on Poe’s short story William Wilson for Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye’s film The Student of Prague in 1913, and supplying a particular sensibility -- evident in much of his major literary work -- whose influence could still be felt later, even in apparently unrelated blockbusters, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Meanwhile, in 1915, director/actor Wegener and writer Henrik Galeen’s Der Golem presented cinema with the first animated non-human monster ever to stalk the screen, thanks to a fusion of Jewish myth and gothic ambience. However, by far the greatest milestone in the establishment of the aesthetics and imagery of the genre was also created in Weimar Germany that same year, in 1920. Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari forever fixed Expressionism as Horror’s principle language of choice. Its vocabulary was one delineated in harsh contrasting smears of light and shadow, with a syntax of twisted, angular, unreal landscapes that were constructed in-studio to embody geometric principles of abstract-modernist set design. This was embroidered with brooding, jagged chiaroscuro which aimed to reflect the shattered psychology of unbalanced characters adrift in a threatening, uncertain world where the unconscious, psychotic drives of megalomaniacs govern the very texture of one’s experience of reality.
This film set the bar for German Expressionism as the newest and most modern mode of cinematic invention. It was also to become the precursor to 1940s film noir and the horror boom that preceded it in North American cinema of the 1930s, long after many of Germany’s best technicians, actors and directors had already taken their talents to Hollywood in successive waves of emigration, driven ultimately by the need to flee calamitous political events in their home country before the Second World War. Even if you’re coming to this historically all-important film for the first time via this exquisitely restored, beautifully tinted new high definition transfer from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema label, there is barely a frame of what is still a vitally compelling picture that will not at once seem totally familiar to you: James Whale’s version of Frankenstein depends on a central performance from Boris Karloff as the Monster that is the logical extension of combining Paul Wegener’s lumbering Golem with Conrad Veidt’s still unsettlingly delicate performance as the tragic, cadaverous, sleepwalking androgyne of Caligari, Cesare; while -- to take just two random examples -- Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire and Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue adapt elements of the Caligari visual style -- its illogical narrative convolutions, and even specific images -- to fit Universal’s by-this-stage already much-indebted horror aesthetic.
Because of this, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari has become the central founding text of German Expressionist cinema, and is undoubtedly an important influence on much of what came out of the country in its wake during the rest of the 1920s, kicking off the process of opening up the German film market to the rest of the world again after the embargo put in place throughout much of Europe during The First World War. As a result, German Expressionism is a term that is often now applied rather too loosely to other works in the gothic genre that had in fact been at least partly conceived as a direct reaction to Caligari’s stripped down conventions of abstract artifice … films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu for instance, which contrasted studio-created decor from the shadow-haunted realms of nightmare that defined the expressionist style, with naturalistic exterior landscape scenes influenced by traditional German Romantic painting, all quite antithetical to the expressionist credo.
As an interwar product of Weimar Germany during its period of greatest social unrest and economic upheaval, this film, which seemed so ripe with symbolism and abstraction thanks to its appropriation of modernist principles allied to an essentially dreamlike fable of a story combining crime, occult mystery and madness in equal measure, was always destined to be the subject of myth-making and obfuscation. Accounts of its creation differ and contradict each other, but most are heavily influenced by film critic Siegfried Kracauser’s landmark 1947 study of German silent cinema, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film, which presented a case for the films that were produced in Germany during the Weimar period being best understood as prophetic, unconscious distillations and anticipations of the rise of German authoritarianism, which took the form in real life of the criminal, megalomaniacal doctrine of Nazism.
To back up his thesis, Kracauser made extensive use of an unpublished memoir written in 1941 by Hans Janowitz, one of the two screenwriters who conceived the film’s original screenplay. For years his became the standard account of the picture’s genesis, with the strangely strutting figure of the top-hatted vaudevillian barker Dr Caligari (mesmerically portrayed by Werner Krauss) becoming the metaphoric embodiment of the German state under Hitler, with the sinister character’s catatonic puppet-somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the personification of a society controlled and manipulated into unleashing madness, confusion and murder upon its disintegrating surroundings. Certainly such a thesis is backed up and corroborated by the later work of Ufa producer Erich Pommer, particularly that which was created in collaboration with one of the prime exemplars of auteur Expressionism: Fritz Lang, whose Dr Mabuse: The Gambler was quite forthright in linking a use of expressionist décor with the contemporary pulp crime origins of its material in order to create a fictional analogue to the chaos of contemporary Weimar society.
In fact, both Pommer and Lang were at least tangentially involved in the initial conception of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari: Pommer was head of production at Decla Bioscope before its absorption into Ufa, and was the executive who had the contract drawn up to buy the screenplay from Janowitz and co-writer Carl Mayer, recognising a mystery story that had elements of the Grand Guignol – a style that was at the time popular in German films; although Pommer was not directly involved with the creative decisions pertaining to Caligari’s eventual production. As for Lang’s involvement, like much of what he subsequently said about his own movies, the director’s claim to have been responsible for conceiving the framing story is probably untrue. However, he did act as a go-between in Janowitz’s initial meeting with Erich Pommer, and his 1933 talkie sequel to the first multi-part Mabuse film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, not only recapitulates similar themes to those which play a central role in Caligari, but also re-treads a great deal of the same plot, particularly the sections involving the insane asylum; which are, of course, also the sections Lang claims to have come up with as a better replacement for the wraparound framing segment that Janowitz and Mayer wrote for their original script!
By positing a character who is so charismatic, and whose cult of personality is so all-powerful and psychologically domineering that his megalomaniacal obsessions come to possess a life of their own, lingering on in the psyches of those who come into contact with him (or even anyone who might just simply have once heard of him), as though his beliefs were a virus with the ability to endow their originator with a kind of immortality -- Lang seemed to offer a vivid metaphor for the power of Fascism to escape the specific bonds of the individual psychology which had given birth to it, allowing it to become a destructive part of the cultural zeitgeist; yet, thanks to a series of plot twists in the final act, the same idea was already inherent to the version of Caligari that ended up on the screen. In the Kracauser interpretation, Janowitz’s vehement loathing of war, brought about as a result of his background in the Austrian army and his grief at the loss of his brother in 1917 during fighting on the Italian front, becomes evidence that he and Mayer subconsciously intended the film as an anti-war parable, with an anecdote about Mayer’s supposed battle with an army psychiatrist to try and get himself declared too mentally unstable to fight during the war being used as another piece of supporting evidence.
But, however appealing this narrative might be, when it comes to our understanding of the circumstances that surrounded the making of Caligari, it is almost certainly a case of retro-fitting the facts to fit an attractive thesis. It has since been discovered that Mayer was actually invalided out of the army after just one day because of a childhood foot injury, and Janowitz’s assertion that all of the mad expressionistic décors and weird, unsettling modernist art trappings (which have become so much a part of the film’s identification with the experimental avant-garde of the period) were pre-specified by him in the script, seems to have turned out not to have been true either now that scholars can compare the film with a lone surviving copy of the original shooting script which once belonged to actor Werner Krauss. Certainly the two writers came up with the main body of the story, that much is not in doubt; but it seems clear also that the screenplay they fashioned could just have as easily been made in a far more conventional Gothic style, and the distinctive expressionist mode of writing that Karl Mayer later developed during his ground-breaking collaborations with Murnau on films like Tartuffe and The Last Laugh (which famously dispensed with intertitles altogether), is nowhere near as evident as was once assumed it would have been.
Most of the other fanciful stories Janowitz tells in relation to the film -- such as the idea that it had been partly inspired by his unknowingly having witnessed the murder of a young woman while visiting an amusement park, and then seeing the same suspect again later attending the girl’s funeral -- seem unlikely to be true either. None of this detracts from the historical importance or the compelling nature of the work when viewed today, though: instead, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari can be seen as a collaborative process, its unique style the result of close communication between the director Robert Wiene, producer Rudolph Meinert, designer Hermann Warm, and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig who most likely took their inspiration from the popularity of expressionist décor in German theatrical productions of the period. Echoing this source, the film's sets were composed of painted backdrops and cut-outs, their details painted onto the walls, floors and canvas backcloths of the studio; with shapes rendered distorted and threatening, and structures jutting at strange angles over narrow streets constructed out of studio flats. Costumes do not suggest any clear time period and range from modern 1920s styles of dress to Biedermeier period. Artificiality is emphasised and unreality celebrated in every aspect: when we’re presented with a scene from a town fair near the beginning of the film, the town is simply a painted backdrop depicting houses crowed on a hill that have been painted in cubist style; while the fair itself consists of nothing more than a crowd of extras milling among a few coloured paper spinning tops, positioned in front of said backcloth to suggest the bustle of merry-go-round rides.
The film is, then, the embodiment of a set of cultural trends popular in Germany during a period when German film companies were on the lookout for new ways of attracting audiences by utilising outlandish or striking art ‘gimmicks’. Because, although Expressionism is often now associated with the tumultuous interwar years thanks to its prevalence in German cinema after 1920, in fact the word was mainly used before that as an umbrella term denoting a loose affiliation of art movements centred around Germany and Austria-Hungary in the early part of the century, including the likes of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism and Constructivism, and extending well beyond the visual arts to include the poetry and literature of the era. After the war, the utopian philosophical aims of these battling movements gave way to darker, more disillusioned strains of thought, while the characteristic, crazily jagged geometric patterns found throughout the artistic works of expressionist artists began to be increasingly familiar to the public as they were also by then being appropriated by poster designers, graphic illustrators and theatre set designers as well, until the term became a recognised part of the mainstream; even Berlin’s famous carnival attraction, the Luna Park, re-opened after the war years redecorated in a manner indicative of Expressionist principles. Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari is fascinating today, then, for being a popular film of its period, aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, but which, nevertheless, dresses itself in clothing sourced from avant-garde art of the early part of the twentieth century in order to attract an audience hungry for new sensations; an audience that would have been very familiar by then with the visual style of Expressionism, but which would not have seen it applied in the medium of cinema before. The film is doubly a curiosity for the modern viewer, since it embodies both arthouse cinema principles and those of popular film, successfully bringing them together when today we’re used to thinking of the two as irreconcilably opposed almost by definition.
Robert Wiene and his collaborators were the first to discover that weird, fable-like gothic horror stories and outré, anti-realist design principles could be made to work together harmoniously to reinforce an unsettling atmosphere through abstract mise-en-scene; but beyond that they also brought modernist ideas to the construction of the script, and turned a simple Grand Guignol mystery story into something more indicative of the work of Franz Kafka or of E.T. A. Hoffmann. Under the influence of the idea that the film had been meant by its writers as an anti-war condemnation of German authoritarianism, the bookending framing device which turns the story of Caligari and his fortune-telling somnambulist murderer Cesare into a tale told by the inmate of a lunatic asylum, has often been condemned for neutralising both the strangeness of the film’s design and the content of the story, because it presents everything that we see as something that can safely be dismissed as the outpourings of a madman. In fact the film’s narrative is a lot more unsettling and ambiguous than that, and is more akin to the story structure of a late career David Lynch film such as Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, in which it is impossible to say for sure what is dream and what is reality, who is sane and who is insane; it’s a narrative deliberately left open to interpretation, ending on a deeply ambiguous note, capable of being interpreted in multiple ways; one that leaves many more questions unanswered than it addresses. In fact, the asylum framing story is actually much more radical than the one originally conceived by Janowitz and Mayer, where events become merely an anecdote related by the two protagonists concerned, Franzis and Jane, about an incident which is now safely locked away harmlessly in the distant past. The fact that they are a married couple in this version of the framing story suggests everything turns out well for them in the end, while in the film as it stands nothing could be further from the case!
The film begins on an already deeply mysterious note, with a haunted-looking elderly Gentleman (Hans Lanser-Rudolf) and a younger man -- who we later learn is called Franzis (Friedrich Fehér) -- seated together on a bench in front of a high wall in a gloomy park that seems to be gathering darkness all about it. The older man talks ambiguously about spirits being all around them, and how these spirits have driven him from hearth and home, wife and child. This strange, forlorn opening line is never much commented upon in critical analysis, since it comes from such a minor character in the framing story. But it seems central to a film in which solving a murder mystery appears to lead to dissolution of identity and the self, and, eventually, the apparent unravelling of reality itself for the leading character. These ‘spirits’ could be the deranged beliefs of those overcome by insanity (at this point we don’t know that both figures are occupants of an insane asylum) or, if we believe as literal fact the story that is soon to be told, they could refer to the spirit of Caligari himself, who seems to represent abuse of power and authority through the exploitation of those who have none.
Prompted by the appearance of an ethereal woman in white who looks to be in a trance, and whom he claims as his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover), Franzis responds with a fable-like story of his own, set in his home town of Holstenwall, which appears as a peculiar medieval hill fort full of crazily leaning structures and dark, jutting streets built around town squares surrounded by angular sloping parapets and protruding ramparts, where crooked lanes lead off into woodland dominated by the silhouettes of leafless trees.
The occupants of the town are transfixed by the spectacle of a leering, preening, black-cloaked showman known as Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), who appears at the local annual carnival fair in a booth displaying an upright wooden casket-crate, inside which there resides a thin, deathly pale figure of a twenty-three-year-old man called Cesare (Conrad Veidt), clad in a skin-tight, chalk-stained, woollen black suit. Cesare the somnambulist has, it is claimed, slept almost continuously throughout his life and only awakens briefly at the command of his master to tell the fortunes of those among the audience willing to step up and ask about their fates. A series of murders occur in the town soon after the act’s appearance at the fair … first the official who had earlier kept Caligari waiting for a permit he needed to be allowed to display his attraction in Holstenwall, and then Franzis’s best friend Allan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), are brutally slain in their beds -- stabbed in the side with a strange, elongated instrument. Connecting Cesare’s prediction of Allan’s death to subsequent events, Franzis suspects the skulking figure of Caligari of the crimes, and attempts to search his caravan in the company of Dr Olfen (Ludwig Rex), Jane’s father. Jane is the woman both Franzis and Allan have been rivals in love for. A copycat killer (played by Dr Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in an un-credited role) is blamed for the crimes and the investigation into Caligari is called off, leaving the diabolical showman free to exact revenge on Franzis and Olfen by sending Cesare off to murder Jane …
Both Werner Krauss, who plays Caligari, and Conrad Veidt, who is the cadaverous sleepwalking charge compelled to murder by Caligari’s hypnotic force of will, had appeared together before in an Expressionist theatrical production staged by Max Reinhardt, so they had developed a perfectly complementary rapport grounded in the artificially exaggerated acting style needed for this kind of outlandish film. (Their respective roles here are made all the more apposite given their very different responses to the rise of Hitler: Krauss was an anti-semite who became an enthusiastic cultural ambassador for Nazism; Veidt married a Jew and fled to England when the regime began purging the German film industry of ‘undesirables’.) Krauss’s and Veidt’s performances lay a great many of the ground rules for the genre of Horror as we know it, their roles conveying a warped, gothic-flavoured intimation of Freud’s division of the mind into Id, ego and superego – another piece of early twentieth century modernity drafted in to bring resonance to this twisted fairy story. Caligari dominates the corpse-like Cesare (Veidt’s makeup, with pale skin highlighting further the blackened eyes & lips that bring a skull-like menace to his visage, anticipates many aspects of the design of Karloff’s Monster), but he also lives out his own suppressed urges through the corpse-like puppet, endowing this etiolated being who can barely summon the energy to open his own eyes, with a manic life force combining Caligari’s own murderous rage with a peculiar tinge of sexual longing. Witness, for instance, the innuendo implicit in the scene in which Jane is persuaded by the giggling showman to enter Caligari’s tent, where she is made to look upon Cesare in his crate after his master furtively nudges open the door of the somnambulist’s cabinet in front of her: there is an undertow of sexual lewdness to Krauss’s performance here, as though Caligari were some kind of dirty old man excitedly anticipating exposing himself to a beautiful, unsuspecting innocent. And then there is Cesare’s fascinated, wide-eyed glare in return, when Caligari orders him to wake up and gaze upon Jane for the first time ... There is even a kind of allegorical complicity in the excitement of the carnival audiences who flock to see Caligari’s act, with its lure of the forbidden, the promise of the transgressive, and the prospect of these traits being combined with revelation and enlightenment – an oddly suggestive mosaic of psychic properties.
In fact, though, those revelations all lead us back to the lunatic asylum where the tale originally started: Franzis follows Caligari there after Cesare’s apparent death, when the somnambulist's attempt to go against his programming has resulted in his decision to abduct rather than kill Jane. From this point on, the film enters what we would now call a Lynchian labyrinth of alternate identities and parallel realities. First, we find out that the dishevelled mad-eyed showman Dr Caligari is in fact the director of the Holstenwall Insane Asylum: obsessed with the subject of somnambulism, and whether or not a human being can be made entirely subject to another’s will, the director has quietly gone mad and taken on the identity of a legendary mystic he’d once read about in one of his medical books: a travelling showman who was supposed to have toured Northern Italy in the Eighteenth century bringing terror to the local populations with his somnambulist killer Cesare. But then we return to the framing story and discover that Franzis and the old man he has been relating all these peculiar events to, are themselves both inmates of the same insane asylum, which still bears the same crazy Expressionist design and which has a forecourt filled with inmates, including those we had known previously as Cesare and Jane. Each of them is apparently obliviously lost inside their own isolated version of reality. The director appears and commands the attendants to lead a distraught Franzis back to his cell, and we notice that the ‘real’ asylum director is indeed the same man we’ve known throughout to be Caligari, but who is now immaculately groomed and behaves far more naturalistically. As Franzis is shut away in his cell, the director claims to have finally understood his patient's delusion: Franzis believes that the director is ‘that mystic Caligari’ … Having now divined this, the director claims that he now knows how to cure this inmate.
There are multiple ways of reading this unexpected and puzzling conclusion. Each one requires the viewer to add his or her own assumptions in order to make them work. Even if we accept that the whole film has been the outpouring of a madman, populated with the faces of other inmates from the asylum, what does the director mean by his cryptic final remark? One conclusion I’ve always liked is that this second version of Caligari, who certainly appears to be in charge, is in fact merely another inmate who has at some point deluded himself into believing that he is indeed the director of the asylum. The somewhat remote way in which the attendants regard him suggests this idea; and that they merely tolerate this harmless old man following them about pronouncing on the condition of the other patients. If this really is the director, though, the furtive glint in his eye as he considers ‘the cure’ he must now administer suggests Franzis is about to become a guinea pig in some medical trial treatment that he is completely powerless to resist – his situation akin, then, to the sleeping Cesare, and his previous delusional story an allegorical prediction of his own plight, perhaps even a coded allusion to the crimes he may well have once committed. As film critic David Kalat says in his absorbing audio commentary, included with the new Masters of Cinema restored edition of this landmark film, the artificial, shadow-painted world of Holstenwall and its cardboard fairground with its mad, skulking carnivalesque figures, is the version of ‘reality’ that seems the most convincing to the viewer and which has the most substance here; dominance and submissiveness, deferred sexual longing and guilt haunt its twisted narrow lanes and squares, while the power dynamic of master and servant appears elusive but ever present as it perpetually slips the tethers of sustained identity.
This new 4K restored version makes the film seem even more vivid and present to the eye of the modern viewer: it’s a thing of dark beguiling beauty, with every possible original detail of the movie now plainly set before us in vivid colour tinted detail, allowing this familiar old classic to appear fully renewed for a modern viewership. Kalat’s commentary on the origins of the movie is augmented by an intelligent 52 minute German language documentary entitled Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War; while critic David Cairns contributes a witty assessment and interpretation in his specially recorded video essay (23 mins). A restoration comparison is also included, and the two-disc package comes with the usual exhaustive 44-page booklet with new writing, reprints and rare archive imagery. This Limited Edition Steelbook contains an exclusive second Blu-ray disc dedicated to the fascinating two hour documentary From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses. This essentially uses Siegfried Kracauser’s thesis (challenged in some of the other extras on the disc) as a springboard for a detailed examination of the film culture of Weimar Germany, extending beyond the examples of Expressionist cinema to include a look at movements such as The New Sobriety and even Germany’s early anticipation of neo-realist cinema. With its stunning, archival imagery of Berlin in the 1920s, this is also a potted history of German film criticism and the intellectual climate prevalent outside the German picture houses of the day. How much credence one should give the Kracauser thesis is still debatable but the documentary provides a fairly decent overview of the critic’s Frankfurt School-influenced line of thinking, and features enough tantalising HD clips from many German silent classics (many of them, particularly the Fritz Lang and Murnau films, are also available in the Masters of Cinema series, but plenty of others still await release) to make this an utterly beguiling watch. That Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari continues to be an essential mainstay of any horror fan’s collection need hardly be stated, but this beautiful edition also puts the film into historical context while presenting a tinted transfer that reveals how modern and captivating Robert Weine’s best known film still is. A must-have new edition.