Posted: 3/14/00

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
by Jon Bastian

Eighty-one years ago, director Robert Wiene showed us how to think outside the box.


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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is on that short list of movies every film student is supposed to have seen, yet very few ever have. Heralded as the flick that gave birth to the German Expressionist movement in cinema, it's referred to in just about every film history book I've ever read. I was finally lucky enough to see it on the big screen in a new, hand tinted 35-mm print recently, and the film is both more and less than its reputation.

To be fair, it's really difficult to avoid judging Caligari by today's standards. The filming technique is very stagy, the acting is over the top and the story is very underdeveloped. The sets and design have a unique, Chagall inspired look that do add to the story -- most of the time, there isn't a right angle in sight -- although they still look like nothing but theatrical flats. Despite the rampant expressionism, I was frequently reminded of the static tableaux of the Lumière Brothers' films, most of which were made several decades before Caligari.

But... it really isn't fair to use twenty-first century standards to rate a work that was released in Germany in 1919. That's a lot like judging the special effects in King Kong against Phantom Menace. Sure, in the latter film, all the creatures may look perfectly real and there isn't a digital stitch evident, but the Kong creators had to do it by hand, laboriously moving a puppet frame by frame. For what they had to work with, they did an amazing job. Likewise, for what Wiene had to work with, he pulls off a creepy, haunting tale with a quite unexpected twist that deserves to have survived through decades when many lesser films are now so much nitrate dust. Caligari is all about atmosphere and, while the acting and story development may be as cardboard as the sets, the concept and the mood are all right there. There's a good reason for the crazy-quilt design, the jagged angles and the apparent fakeness of everything. It all comes right out of character, but it's one of those things that doesn't make sense until the end. Go with it, accept it, and you'll get your "a-ha" by the finale. I'm not going to give it away here.

What I will give away is the basic story. Our hero, Francis (Friedrich Feher) is talking to a man, apparently in a garden, and explains the cause of the near-catatonic state of his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover). Francis tells the story of the annual fair in his small home village, and the visit to that fair by a mysterious hypnotist, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauß). Caligari's act consists of a somnambulist in a box (hence the cabinet), Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who only awakens from his sleep at Caligari's behest. When so awakened, Cesare will tell people's fortunes. Despite Francis' protest, his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) asks the proverbial "stupid question you never ask a movie psychic," namely, "How long have I to live?" Cesare's answer, "Until dawn tomorrow," proves to be true, sending Francis on a crusade to track down the killer in the village.

It becomes obvious pretty quickly that Cesare is the killer, operating under Caligari's control, despite the false lead of a copycat criminal (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) apprehended by the police. Francis never gives up in his determination to prove Caligari is the villain -- until he finds out that the sideshow hypnotist isn't Dr. Caligari at all. Or is he?

Keep in mind that, while the Germans were giving us this dark psycho-drama, American filmmakers were cranking out slapstick comedies or morality tales that were about as deep as a puddle. By the end of Caligari, it's obvious that emerging ideas in psychology and psychoanalysis had a heavy influence on the plot, and Wiene never explains what "really" happened. He does drop ample hints, and the end of the film gives plenty of fodder for viewers to have a long debate about the bits and pieces of reality scattered within the symbolism.

The standouts in the cast are Krauß's Caligari and Veidt's Cesare, two characters that have become well-known visual icons in their own right. It's hard to believe that Krauß was only thirty-six when he made this film. He seems so much older, probably because of his ladled on make-up. Krauß had quite a career in German films, playing everything from the lead in The Student Prince to Pontius Pilate in the 1923 film I.N.R.I., also known as Crown of Thorns. That's quite a range, but I doubt that any of his characters is as visually memorable as Caligari. With his wild hair, overly theatrical black and white make-up, small round glasses and a wardrobe that prefigures Frank Morgan's in The Wizard of Oz, he's simultaneously a ridiculous and a frightening figure. As he stumbles his way through the fair early on, leaning on his cane and eyeing everything with a bitter, tight-lipped gawk, you just know the man is trouble. I found myself wondering if Jonathan Pryce used this visual as an influence in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I have no doubt that Tim Burton used Conrad Veidt's Cesare as a model for Edward Scissorhands. Except for the titular manual replacements and an unfamiliarity with hair gel, Scissorhands is a dead ringer for Cesare -- tall, thin, stark white face, raccoon ringed eyes, skintight black on black outfit. Whiteface, especially on a medium contrast film stock, manages to suck all the detail out of a person's face. We're left with eyes and mouth, maybe nostrils, but that's about it -- and yet, with such minimal material, Veidt makes us feel the somnambulist's pain, understand the trap he is in and forgive him the crimes he commits. Veidt's best known American role is probably as Major Strasser in Casablanca, where he plays a real shit -- easy to do when your character is a Nazi -- but there couldn't be two more different characters on the planet. It says a lot about Veidt's talent. Unfortunately, he was typecast as "evil German guy" when he got to America around the time Hitler got to Poland, and he died far too young, just a few months past his fiftieth birthday, felled by a heart attack in Hollywood.

All of the principals involved have long since passed on, but the influence of Caligari continues. Besides giving visual ideas to Tim Burton, its themes are echoed in many of David Cronenberg's works, and it is acknowledged as the first horror film, parent of an entire genre. By today's standards, parts of it may seem clunky and quaint, but overall it stands up, and deserves to be seen by any student -- or fan -- of film.

If you'd like your own copy of this film, please click here.

Jon Bastian, a native and resident of Los Angeles, is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.

Got a problem? Email Jon at filmmonthly@hotmail.com

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