30/10/2013

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Robert Wiene's seminal Gothic masterpiece of sleepwalking, murder and madness, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, remains the totemic example of German expressionism, one of the greatest of all horror or silent features and boasts both cinema's first twist ending and one of its earliest frame narrative structures. Wiene's film of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer's screenplay is universally admired and as influential a work of art as they come*, routinely referenced and parodied throughout the near-century since it first came creeping out of Weimar Germany. Its story concerns a mysterious travelling fairground act, comprised of the titular showman (Werner Krauss) and his exhibit, an omniscient somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whose arrival in the mountain town of Holstenwall in northern Germany happens to coincide with a spate of violent murders. But is all as it seems? And just how reliable is our narrator?

Janowitz and Mayer were disillusioned veterans of the Great War who believed in the potential of cinema as a new medium through which to convey important ideas to a mass audience. This commonly cited biographical detail has led to a great deal of critical speculation over the last 93 years as to the true meaning of the film. Siegfried Kracauer, for one, famously read Caligari as a prophetic warning against tyrannical powers seeking to control the populace through universal conscription. Caligari could also equally be read as a comment on contemporary unease about psychoanalysis and its broader ramifications, to offer just one other obvious interpretation. At any rate, the story the two writers concocted, though its conclusion arguably owes something to Edgar Allan Poe, was entirely their own and is all the more remarkable for that, fitting seamlessly into continental Europe's grand tradition of fairy tales and horror stories. 


The film's aesthetic, and its painted canvas sets in particular, seem to remain its most enduring calling card. Expressionism was concerned with giving outer voice to the inner emotions by distorting realistic landscapes and architecture to echo and evoke the mood of the protagonists or the tone of the narrative. Here, the ominous arrival of Caligari and Cesare warps Holstenwall like a carnival mirror, twisting its winding streets and alleyways at sharp angles and elongating its windows and doorways to suggest a cracked and fragmenting dreamworld, crooked and somehow deeply wrong. Wiene's nightmarish visual style has been much imitated, but never put to better use.

*One of the most recent films to tip its cap to Caligari, however obliquely, was Shane Carruth's extraordinary self-made and distributed Upstream Colour (2013), which also dealt with sleepwalkers being manipulated into committing crimes, albeit financial rather than homicidal.

2 comments:

  1. I have a vague memory of reading once that Caligari's ending was to have revealed the sanitarium director as the actual Caligari (giving fresh impetus to that phrase of the inmates running the asylum) and not as a benign doctor. The revelation of the psychoanalyst to be the criminal hypnotist would have had implications far beyond that of the conclusion as it now stands, that the story is all a madman's dream. And apparently the set design (shadows painted directly onto the sets) was because the studio had not enough money after the war to afford camera equipment. Hence material need resulted in a radical aesthetic!

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  2. Haha! A happy accident indeed! The alternative ending you mention would also have provided an interesting spin, although perhaps the one we have deserves credit for its sophistication, in that it subverts an audience's narrative expectations rather than confirms them. Quite a gambit to play at such an early stage in the public's acquaintance with the medium.

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