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The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari

There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.

But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy.  (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent film made in Germany in late 1919 and released in early 1920. It broke open an international market for German silent cinema and helped create the entire concept of arthouse movies. It changed how German films were made, and inspired a raft of imitators that helped inaugurate the genres of horror, science fiction, and film noir. Its aesthetic innovations continued to inspire copycats for generations, it reliably shows up on lists of the Most Important films ever made, and remains a mainstay of film studies to this day. But while The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari needs no introduction, it needs an explanation.

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The visual style of the film is self-consciously off-putting—with a production design that took abstract art and inserted living people into it. The bizarre and innovative visual style made the film an instant international sensation, and inspired so many copycats and followers, while also establishing Caligari’s bona fides as an “art” movie. But anytime you do something different, it begs the question why? In other words, what does it all mean?

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By the age of 17, Hans Janowitcz was already a published author. By 18 he was a professional theater critic. By 22 he was a paid actor, on the theatrical stage.

And then at age 24 he joined the Austrian army, as young men were expected to do in 1914, where his intelligence and maturity got him quickly advanced to Captain. During that military career his patriotic enthusiasm quickly deteriorated into anger and hatred towards the Fatherland.

As the war neared its end, in 1918, Janowitcz met a girl named Gilda Langer. He was mourning his brother (killed in battle), she was mourning her fiancée (killed in battle). Comrades in grief, they fell in love.

And when Gilda suggested they go see a psychic and have their fortunes told, of course Janowitcz agreed. The clairvoyant made an ominous prediction: she said that Janowitcz would return safely from the front and survive the war. But she also said that Gilda would die. Both halves of the prediction came true.

Before her tragic death, Gilda had another momentous suggestion: she put forth that her boyfriend Hans really ought to team up with Carl Mayer to write a movie script.

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So, time to meet Carl Mayer. Four years younger than Janowitcz, the story goes that he was the son of a successful Austrian businessman who decided to quit his job and dedicate himself to the casinos of Monte Carlo. He had a foolproof “system” you see. He was bankrupted by that system (so much for foolproof) and committed suicide in shame.

As a boy, Carl Mayer had to be the breadwinner for his family—supporting his mother, younger brothers, his widowed sister in law, and her baby. This he did by writing plays—perhaps not the most lucrative of professions, but Carl had his muse to service just like Hans did.

Gilda’s suggestion was a good one. Hans and Carl had similar sensibilities but different enough perspectives to make a good team. They started writing together in the winter of 1918 to 1919. For 6 weeks they worked—drawing from a variety of personal experiences to form a collage of disturbing, eerie ideas.

Their story took shape in the nearby amusement park at Kantstrasse, were a sideshow attraction with a hypnotized strongman predicted the future. They decided to build their story around such a figure—but found the hypnotist much more interesting than the hypnotized zombie.

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By April 1919, Janowitcz and Mayer were surviving by pawning their belongings—but they’d run out of things to hock and didn’t have enough money left to cover both food and rent, so they chose food. They needed to sell this script, and they needed to do it soon.

Scoring an audience with Erich Pommer, the head of Decla Studios and the man behind nearly every major German silent film you’ve ever heard of, Janowitcz and Mayer started to read their script aloud, scene for scene. As the story goes, by the time they finished, Pommer insisted on drawing up a contract on the spot. By the evening of the first day they actually tried to sell their script, they’d made the sale.

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We have to be cautious about the rosy glasses of hindsight. Talking about Caligari in his later years, Pommer could knowingly look back on one of the most significant accomplishments of his career, one of the films that made his name, established German film as a major cultural force, and lasted as an acclaimed masterpiece. But on that April afternoon in 1919, what really went through his mind then? Could he possibly have foreseen that this would be a masterpiece blockbuster?

Actually Pommer says the thing that most caught his attention was that this was a Grand Guignol style mystery thriller he could make on the cheap. Janowitcz says that he and Mayer had written into the script that the sets would be abstracted paintings, to be done in the style of Expressionist painter Alfred Kubin. Apparently Janowitcz reached out to Kubin and asked him to join the production as a designer, but the painter demurred so they just wrote, “in the style of Kubin.”

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Kubin was an Expressionist, but his style of Expressionism was more on the Surrealist side of things. Somewhere along the way, a different idea took hold.

Director Robert Wiene gave the script to Decla production designer Hermann Warm and told him to start conceptualizing. Warm took one look at the script and realized it called for something special. He reached outside the Decla design staff to a pair of freelance painters with Expressionist tendencies, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig.

The designers presented conceptual sketches that wowed the production team. Producer Rudolf Meinert encouraged the designers to take the eccentric approach as far as they dared—because he wanted to promote the film as an artistic experiment.

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It is at this point that I have to note that, ahem, there is something of a historical debate about how these Expressionist visions are used in the film. The movie is told as a flashback, and at the end of the film the flashback is revealed to be narrated by an inmate of an insane asylum. I didn’t include a SPOILER ALERT because the movie is very nearly 100 years old by this point, and even if you haven’t seen it before, knowing that twist ahead of time lets you focus on how that twist is actually being used—which is what we need to address here.

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In 1946, a historian named Siegfried Kracauer published a book called From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of The German Film. The book was pretty much exactly what the title promised—an attempt to psycho-analyze the entire German state through its popular culture, to chart the rise of the Nazi mindset and the acquiescence of German society to its monstrous superman.

It was a daring project with a lot to recommend it. In practice, however, Kracauer made numerous unaccountable errors, such as ignoring the vast swaths of hugely popular German films that didn’t support this premise in favor of focusing on poorly distributed obscurities that did. That, and letting himself get hornswaggled by an angry artist with a chip on his shoulder.

That angry artist was Hans Janowitcz.

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Basically everything Kracauer says about Caligari is taken from Janowitcz’s self-serving account. Janowitcz in particular blamed Wiene for adding this narrative frame, and thereby undermining the challenging visions contained within by suggesting they are just the dreams of a madman.

While Kracauer’s book has fallen from esteem over the years, and is the subject of fairly intense criticism over its flawed methodology and screwy conclusions, the fact remains it was itself an incredibly influential work and for decades established the default understanding of Caligari. Its screwy conclusions easily colonized the thoughts of generations of film fans and scholars.

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For most of its existence, the received wisdom on how to read this film has been this: Janowitcz and Mayer were revolutionary artists, on the forefront of aesthetic developments and enervated by a stinging rebuke to the prevailing authority. They set out to make a radical film—one that would be challenging in its visual vocabulary, while also challenging the legitimacy and military values of the German state. This artistic creation was weakened by smaller minds, like Wiene, who misunderstood the power of the symbols they controlled, and who catered only to the baser concerns of mainstream appeal and box office profits. It was the classic art vs commerce debate, but in this case it prefigured the rise of Hitler’s Nazi-state because what Weimar-era Germany needed most was to challenge authority, not reinforce it.

As Janowitcz told it, a preview screening was held for the production team, but Wiene did not attend. Janowitcz believed Wiene skipped the screening to avoid a confrontation with the writers, who were about to discover how thoroughly their work had been violated. They raged at the frame story—and threatened a lawsuit against Decla for what they called the “rape” of their work.

Then came the public premiere, a big gala event at the Berlin’s West End on February 26, 1920. By this point the production team was barely on speaking terms, and they rode to the event in almost total silence. As the limo pulled up to the theater, Pommer quietly whispered, “This will be a horrible failure for all of us.” Solemnly, they filed into the theater.

The venue was the Marmorhaus, the most prestigious theater in Kurfurstendamm. It was packed—the press was there, VIPs, and regular movie-goers. The theater darkened, and the screen started to flicker with weird angles and sinister shadows. In the orchestra pit, the musicians played a haunting soundtrack composed by Giuseppe Becce. And then people started to gasp. Women fainted. Some screamed. 78 minutes later the place erupted in thunderous applause. It was a success, an unqualified monster success.

Wiene soaked it in—vindication. Meanwhile, the two writers slunk off to a bar to nurse their wounds and wonder “whether our new scripts would also be produced in crippled forms by cowardly directors.”

Those are fightin’ words.

And like most fightin’ words uttered by angry drunks, they are easily dismissed in the quiet logic of the day.

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For one thing, Weine didn’t impose the framing story. He may have revised and improved it, but the original script that Janowitcz and Mayer sold to Pommer already had a framing story built in. It was different than what ended up on screen—but those changes made by Wiene tend to be uniformly for the better. The original frame would have given the film a happy ending (!), and if anything threatened to undermine the eerie atmosphere and unsettling stance of this experiment, a happy ending seems to top that list.

Most importantly, however, the Kracauer argument assumes that the framing story is meant to be taken at face value, while conveniently ignoring all of the work the film does to ensure that we do no such thing.

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The film does nothing to legitimize Caligari’s authority. At no point anywhere in the entire film is Caligari presented as sympathetic or trustworthy, and at no point is Francis presented as unbalanced. We are eventually told he is unbalanced, but we are told that by the very man we’ve been conditioned to distrust.

Since 1920, nobody watching this film has ever come out of the theater saying, yeah, Francis was crazy and so his story was nonsense. Instead they come out saying, “the movie would’ve been better without the frame,” which is another way of saying they don’t believe Caligari at the end. He isn’t persuasive. The last minute bracketing of some realistic imagery just isn’t realistic enough to convince us—Francis wins. His version of events is what audiences accept.

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TCM is running The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari this Sunday night, presenting the glorious new 4k restoration recently unveiled.

This is a film whose reputation has been dogged for decades by the baggage laden onto it by the likes of Sigfried Kracauer. It’s long past time to see this movie with fresh eyes. Here comes Dr. Caligari; let the reappraisal begin.

19 Responses The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari
Posted By Emgee : September 5, 2015 1:22 pm

Very interesting article; unfortunately the director’s name is Wiene, not Weine as it says throughout the article.

Posted By Phil Marchesseault : September 5, 2015 2:10 pm

I find interesting how large a role the carnival(and related forms of amusement like circuses and sideshows) has played in the history of cinematic horror. I’m wondering if this was the first time it was used in film?

Posted By David Kalat : September 5, 2015 3:12 pm

@Emgee–Thanks! I think I’ve fixed them all now. It could have been so much worse–spellcheck had originally converted every single “Caligari” to “Calgary.” I only caught that at the last minute before posting. That would have been really embarrassing!

Posted By Steve Burrus : September 5, 2015 3:33 pm

Ya Alfred Hitchcock made a masterful use of a carnival near the end of his “Strangers On A Train” movie.

Posted By Marjorie Birch : September 5, 2015 4:17 pm

AYUND… Cesare the zombie Somnambulist was played by Conreid Veidt who later played Major Strasser in “Casablanca.”

Posted By AL : September 5, 2015 10:58 pm

When Chaney died during pre-production, Veidt was the first choice for DRACULA. He turned it down.

Posted By George : September 6, 2015 12:57 am

“From Caligari to Hitler” is still a readable introduction to 1919-1933 German cinema, although nobody is likely to agree with all the author’s conclusions.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 6, 2015 3:11 am

I hate to be contradictory, but I am going to be. I have shown this film for years in my film history classes. Without alerting the students to the film’s twist ending, they have no trouble believing Francis is insane at the end, and it has nothing to do with Kracauer, which I have never used as a reference. And, when I tell them that the frame was not the original intent of the writers, and ask which do they prefer, the film with the frame or without, the version with the frame always gets the most votes. Twist endings and the fallacy of first-person narration in genre fiction are conventions young readers/viewers are accustomed to. They like that an older film effectively used these same story-telling devices. I don’t think you can speak for all audiences when you say that Francis’s version of events is what audiences accept. That has never been my experience.

And, more importantly, we are not just TOLD Francis is unbalanced. We are SHOWN he is unbalanced by the production design. The entire movement of Expressionism (painting, printmaking, theater, film) was about revealing internal states, such as insanity, melancholia, or moral corruption, through external means–an idea that can be traced through painting back to Romanticism, esp. Caspar David Friedrich. And, the production designers for CALIGARI were painters in the style of Expressionist painter Ernst Kirshner. The production design makes literal Francis’s warped view of the narrative. In other words, it’s distorted and warped because that’s the way insane people see the world. The more naturalistic scenes in the framing device reinforce this.

Also, a convention of Expressionist filmmakers was to use makeup/costuming and blocking to suggest character. In Francis’s story, Dr. C’s makeup is distorted and sinister, and he wears black as he creeps along like a huge bug, because Francis believes he is evil. At the end, we can see that Dr. C. is natural-looking, and he is wearing white and walks normally–all suggesting he is normal and telling the truth. The visuals cue us regarding how to interpret the characters and follow the story–that’s the entire point of Expressionist filmmaking.

Posted By Lloyd : September 6, 2015 4:21 am

I agree with Professor Doll. My brother tipped me off to see this many years ago, because he had seen it in a college class. He did not tell me about the twist ending. I was confused, amused and enchanted by the sets, but knew that there was a more traditional story at the heart of it, and I had no trouble understanding the basic plot. When the twist occurred, I likewise had no trouble telling my brother that finally the sets made sense, since they were part of a madman’s raving. Please note that the somnambulist dies in Francis story, yet we see him very much alive at the sanitarium. To me that clinches my interpretation. On the Kalat side of the debate, however , there is that very last and unsettling image of Caligari, not at all looking like a kindly, helpful medical man.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 6, 2015 4:45 am

I have never read Kracauer, but when I first saw Caligari it never occurred to me that the real Caligari was anything but a representation of evil authoritarianism. He never impressed me as benevolent or as the voice of reason, and I didn’t care how insane (or not) Francis is supposed to be. I later saw the Image video release with the Mike Budd commentary supporting the Kracauer critique, and I still was not convinced. I wondered if I were insane to entertain such heretical notions until the Masters of Cinema release with David’s commentary, which I found much more persuasive. Thanks, David. You are the best.

Posted By Mitch Farish : September 6, 2015 5:22 am

I should add that I believe the issue of Francis’ sanity or madness is left intentionally ambiguous. As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense – the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent – and you are sane -
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : September 6, 2015 8:40 am

One point you miss about the framing story is that it is inconsistent if taken at face value. As pointed out in the excellent BFI Film Classics book that I have (it’s not in front of me and I don’t remember who wrote it — I think it was David Thompson), if we were really seeing the settings as a reflection of Francis’s mad mind, then they should at the end be the more naturalistic sets that appear in the beginning of the film, and not the Expressionistic ones. Only the sets in the flashback story should represent Francis’s deranged state. It only proves that in spite of later recollections, the writers as well as the film makers were never entirely sure of what they were doing, or what it was representing. On the subject as to who should be considered the REAL monster in the film, let us never forget that while Conrad Veidt ran to Hollywood and made films like CASABLANCA, Werner Krauss stayed in Germany and made films like JUD SUSS. And let us not forget that it was Veidt’s film JEW SUSS made in England that so incensed the Nazis that they had to make a version of their own.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 6, 2015 5:05 pm

Interesting about the BFI Classics book. I haven’t read that one, so I can’t comment on that specifically.

But, at the end of the film, there IS a return to the first setting in the park after Francis is done with his story. We break from the first person narrative to third person at that time. Then Francis walks to the asylum, which is not rendered in the same style as the angular, jagged, set design of his story. The asylum is also stylized, but there is order and organization to the set design. There are three even and round archways, as you find in many Renaissance compositions. The Renaissance is deliberately referenced because of its claims to find order in nature, and to place order on the represented world. Plus, the diagonal rays of light and shadow meet perfectly in the center of the set. The only other time there is any round (and thus, visually calming) imagery is briefly in Jane’s house when Francis visits her (he idealizes her femininity), but there is no orderly imagery anywhere else in the film. The asylum scene at the end represents visual and thus narrative order, grounding us in a viewpoint we can believe. Francis’s story was rendered as visual chaos, often using the iconography of Expressionism to suggest chaos and disorder, including spiral designs, winding staircases, and spinning imagery. The connection between the film’s imagery and art history, conventions, and traditions has to be considered. Again, the set designers were Expressionist painters; many of the Expressionist filmmakers studied art history, design, and architecture.

I think the word “realism” used to describe the imagery in the framing device is misleading. There is no realism or naturalism in the film at all. The framing device uses 3-d sets and is more orderly– that doesn’t mean we are supposed to take it at face value because it is not as abstracted as Francis’s first-person story. The Expressionists were never interested in duplicating reality,even when making films of everyday life. The asylum setting is not a return to any “reality” we recognize as part of the everyday world; it’s a third and different setting, equally as stylized and equally as potent with visual meaning.

Reams of sketchbooks and notebooks went into deliberately planning every film (or, play, painting, or print). I don’t believe they could not decide what they were doing; there’s too much planning for that.

Posted By Steve Burrus : September 6, 2015 5:15 pm

“including spiral designs, winding staircases, and spinning imagery” I am reminded of a p revious Movie Morlocks post about spiral images, mainly staircases, denoting fear of the unknown and outright terror in some movie scenes.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 7, 2015 1:02 am

Also, I want to say that I may have a different view of Dr. Caligari than David, but I highly respect him as a film historian. I have used a couple of his past Morlocks posts in class, even photocopying them and passing them out to make sure the students actually have a physical copy. I respect all of the Morlocks, and am proud to to have them as peers.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : September 7, 2015 6:53 am

Susan Doll — My choice of words was bad. You are right that there was too much planning for me to say the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing. But I do believe its common knowledge that the writers never intended their story to be taken as the ravings of a madman, because that undermined the anti-authoritarian message that they said that they were trying to send. Audiences just never seemed to get it, probably because the expressionistic sets and the final twist of the story encouraged them to see it as the ravings of a madman. And unfortunately for the authors, many future writers about the film backed them up. I’ve just always found it interesting that the painted sets were not used in the opening sequences of the film, and when I saw the fact pointed out by someone else, it struck a cord. My own belief is that the visuals at the beginning were done more naturally because the filmmakers wanted to ease the audience into their strange world of mystery. And it seemed to work.

Posted By swac44 : September 9, 2015 11:15 am

I don’t think I’ve seen that crisp, clear B&W photo of the set design before, I’m used to murky, sepia-toned images or frame grabs like we see elsewhere in this post. In that photo, it reminds me of the backgrounds for the Fleischer cartoons, another place where Expressionism and Surrealism collide with gusto.

Posted By Steve Burrus : September 9, 2015 5:23 pm

SAwac are ya saying that the Popeye Fleischer cartoons are “another place where Expressionism and Surrealism collide with gusto.”? If so please explain.

Posted By Matthew Clark : October 10, 2015 3:08 am

I think that most judgements on this film should wait until you’ve seen the restored version. I seen this film a lot since the early seventies. First on a public television show that that presented great classics like Rules of the Game, and The 39 Steps, and many times since in theaters and on video. But these have always been washed out version. Now, being able to make out the details of the sets, and being able to clearly see the faces against those sets, it’s like I’ve never seen this film before.

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