Posted by David Kalat on September 5, 2015
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?)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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