The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
Filmed in 1920, it’s a product of the Weimar Republic and is one of the most memorable films of their frankly astonishing output of entertainment during the pre-World War Two period.
An Unusual Film
Directed by Robert Weine (1873-1938) and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer (who were all active proponents of the German expressionism movement) it’s an unusual film for many reasons. Like many of the Weimar Republic films made, there was a distinct theatrical edge to the content of the movie and also the sets and scenery. A discomforting and unsettling melding of jagged edges and sharp backdrops painted on canvas give a distinct feeling of unease – the sets feel in many ways as though they are closing in on you as you watch. The actors in the film did not give naturalistic performances grounded in reality; this was not a film that lent itself to method acting or gritty realism. The characters all dance jerkily; they move in a staccato fashion and give very stylized performances. It gives an even more distinct feeling of depersonalization to the proceedings.
Werner Krauss plays the title character, Doctor Caligari. He’s a sinisterly frightening hypnotist who travels the carnival circuit displaying a somnambulist who goes by the name of Cesare who is played by Conrad Veidt. A series of murders have been committed in a small German town and this seems to coincide with Doctor Caligari's visit. The best friend of hero Francis (played by Friedrich Feher) gets killed and the deed seems to relate somehow to a fight for the romantic affections of a beautiful lady called Jane (played by Lil Dagover). Francis suspects Caligari is guilty of the crime, but his pleas and suspicions are ignored by the police. Francis decides to investigate on his own and seemingly discovers that Caligari has been ordering the somnambulist to commit the murders, but the story eventually takes a more surprising direction. The film is actually not only credited with being one of the first horror films but also one of the first films to introduce “plot twists” – the notion that the story takes different avenues to what one would normally expect and doesn’t end in a traditional style.
How the Film was Realized
Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer had met in the German capital pretty soon after the end of the First World War and deliberately chose to write a horror film, feeling there were maybe too many saccharine sweet films already on the market and that sometimes people wanted “proper” escapism into different worlds rather than the sort of epics film directors such as DW Griffith were producing. Janowitz had had a particularly disturbing experience for which he was treated by a psychiatrist before the war. He had possibly been witness to a murder after walking through a park one night in Hamburg, seeing a disturbed man emerging from some bushes. The next day a woman’s butchered body was found in the same spot and this affected Janowitz greatly. Writing and realizing the film helped in many ways to try and exorcise some of the demons he had been internalizing and that psychiatric treatment hadn’t helped him shift.
The writers wanted to show how altered mental states affected people’s judgements and motives for acting the way they did, in many ways reflecting possibly how the taking of recreational drugs or the drinking of alcohol to excess might affect one’s perception of events. At the time things like alcoholic rehab programs or drug rehabilitation centers wouldn’t have been readily available to treat people and so they were left to the mercy of asylums or other horrific places. In this film the characters are all at the mercy of such a place and the film’s chilling climax highlights what people would have gone through. Surprisingly this film has stood the test of time, given the age of the film and the time it was produced in. It’s a classic of the silent genre and one that warrants much credit and praise to be heaped upon it.
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