The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

by popegrutch

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

The opening shot of his narrative is unabashedly an Expressionist painting of the “town,” which is a spiky cluster of houses on a hill topped with a church with crooked steeples. It is imperfectly centered within an iris-in that soon irises out again. Now the narrator evokes the annual fair (“Jahrmarkt”), which seems to be a proscenium set in the Expressionist style placed in front of this painting. Flags, tents, and railings tilt at any angle except 90 degrees. Now the narrator introduces the title character with the single word “him” and Caligari (played by Werner Krauss) enters the stage between those railings, which we now see define a stairwell that descends below the stage – although these railings are not positioned to be usable as handrails by anyone of human proportions. Next we meet Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), the friend of the narrator, who is in a peaked room with chairs with oversized backs and a jagged blotch of paint on the floor that indicates where sunshine would stream in through the crooked window. Alan reads a book, giving us the impression of a serious student, though he seems unable to focus on the page he is trying to get through. He looks out the window, smiles, and gets his coat to go outside.

For the first time since the internal story began, we cut to a new location without an explanatory intertitle from our narrator. We see a crooked street, clearly built on a studio, which is crowded by buildings that lean toward one another and seem to encroach on the space where people need to walk. Alan walks onto this street, along with a number of other individuals, who all seem to be in a hurry, and he stops to pick up a paper, which is full of stories about the fair in Holstenwall (the first time we learn the name of the town). He runs up a staircase and enters another room, similar to his own, but with walls that seem to dangle from the eaves like bedsheets, and finds the narrator, excitedly slapping his paper to show his enthusiasm for going to the fair. The narrator (whose name we now learn is Francis, and who is played by Friedrich Feher), is also reading when Alan comes in, but is easily coaxed to accompany his friend to the fair.

Now we cut to a cramped corridor, between leaning walls adorned with lines, angles, and squiggles, and see Dr. Caligari approach the camera from the most distant point on the set. He greets a tall man in a bowtie, who warns him not to bother the town clerk (“Stadtsekretär”), who is in an evil mood (“böser Laune”). Heedless, Caligari gives the man his card and proceeds into the office, a triangular space with a high ceiling and lines on the walls that angle in toward each other to give a sense of a vanishing point behind the further desk. The Stadtsekretär himself sits on an impossibly tall stool at an equally high desk, in what looks like the least ergonomic crouch imaginable. Two other fellows stand at his desk looking up at him, and they have his full attention as Caligari sidles up behind him. Between the pain in his back and the nuisance of having multiple people competing for his attention, perhaps it’s understandable when the Stadtsekretär cries out “WAIT!” (“Warten!”) to Caligari’s polite bow when he catches his eye. Caligari is none too pleased, however, and he fumes as he sits on the boxlike bench in the corner. Eventually, the Stadtsekretär descends from his stool and Caligari once again approaches, asking permission to display his exhibit (“Schauobjekt”) at the fair – a “somnambulist,” as he tells the bureaucrat – and the Stadtsekretär dismisses him to a lackey’s attention, who presumably supplies him with the form he needs for permission.

Next, we see the fair in full swing, with flags waving and a merry-go-round spinning, and crowds of people wandering about the awkward set. An organ grinder stands to one side with his monkey, and Caligari surveys the scene with evident satisfaction. We cut to the front of his tent, which has a raised stage for hawking, and a dwarf leads a procession of people, holding a sign with inscrutable Expressionist images. Caligari emerges from the tent with a sign of his own and a large bell, which he rings to get attention, before unfurling the poster to display the image of a thin man in black with heavy eyelids. He barks out his show, inviting the audience to see “Cesare, the somnambulist.”

We, as an audience, must defer this pleasure however, because the intertitles, once again in the voice of the narrator, now change the subject, telling us that on the same evening, the first in a series of mysterious crimes (“einer Kette geheimnisvoller Verbrechen”) took place. A bed is shown to one side in a room constructed of aged slashes of light and dark, and two men in uniform lean over it. An intertitle tells us that the Stadtsekretär has been murdered in the night with a “strange pointed instrument” (“sonderbaren spitzen Instrument”). Then we return to the image of the fair, Francis and Alan finally arriving a day after they supposedly set out. Again we see Caligari in front of his Cesare drawing, hawking to a crowd, this time claiming that Cesare has slept for 23 years, but will awaken from his “death-like sleep” (“Totenstarre”) before the audience. Caligari lifts the flap of his tent, and as people begin to filter in, we see Alan and Francis, who seem to be arguing whether or not to attend. Francis seems unimpressed, but Alan is excited, and talks his friend into seeing the spectacle.

An intertitle repeating the title of the movie introduces the performance, which takes place on a stage before an angled curtain, in a dark space crowded with folding chairs. The curtain is drawn back and we see a tall coffin-like apparatus with a zig-zag lid. This Caligari opens and at long last we see Cesare (Conrad Veidt), sleeping standing up inside of the coffin. Close-ups of Caligari’s fanatical face intercut with the two of them standing on stage, and Caligari calls his subject from his trance. A close-up on Cesare shows his impossibly heavy eyelids slowly opening, and then we cut to a shot of the stage, to see his hands raise and his first steps out of the erect coffin. Caligari halts him at the front of the stage and invites questions from the audience, assuring them that Cesare can see the future. Alan, who has seemed enthralled by the performance, approaches the stage despite Francis’s protestations, and asks to know how long he will live. Cesare stares intently at him and pronounces that he will live only until dawn the next day (“bis zum Morgengrauen”). Alan and Francis leave the show.

Soon they are back on the twisted street set, where a lamplighter ignites a streetlight that offers no illumination but which corresponds to a star-shaped splash of white paint on the ground. They stop to look at a bent leaflet offering 1000 marks for evidence leading to the arrest of the murderer from the night before. The woman from the opening scene (Lil Dagover) now walks up, clothed in more ordinary street clothing, and greets both of them. The trio walks together through strange sets, and the girl holds her wrap close, as if it is a cold evening. An insert shows Caligari emerging from a leaning door in an unevenly-constructed trailer, peering out into the night, checking all sides of his trailer in case he is being spied upon. We return to the street set, where Francis and Alan have walked the girl safely home. They vow not to let her come between their friendship, though it is clear that Alan is smitten beyond words.

That night, we see Alan sleeping in his rounded bed, next to one of his high-backed chairs. He awakes instantly as the silhouette of Cesare strikes the wall next to him and looks up with horror, his hands outstretched to defend himself, as it grows larger. An insert shows those hands, almost apoplectic in their gesture of abjuration, but we cut back to see the silhouette raise and lower a knife. A woman wanders in shock through the angled street and ascends to Francis’s apartment to inform him of the murder. Francis responds with a series of melodramatic gestures and pained facial expressions. He then has the woman take him back to see the body, and we now see the set of Alan’s bedroom from a third angle, different from the one we saw when he was introduced and very different from the murder scene, although we can see the head of his bed as well as the window and its splash of light-paint on the floor, as well as two of his odd chairs. Francis recalls the prophecy of Cesare and begins to put two and two together.

We iris out of that scene and into a set that depicts the lower part of a curving stairwell, with lines that define a vanishing point, making  them seem to go a greater distance than in reality. Francis rapidly ascends these stairs and enters a room with windows and designs on the back wall that seem to define a jack-o-lantern like face. There are two uniformed policemen with Keystone-style mustaches working on either side of a desk, facing each other. They surround Francis as he reports the murder. He vows not to rest until the frightful crimes (“die furchtbaren Dinge, die ringsum geschehen”) are solved, a kind of reverse-somnambulism. An inspector (a young man with a cape and top hat) is brought in to confer with the officers, and Francis walks upstage looking obsessive. Eventually, he slowly descends the curved staircase alone.

He finds the girl, in front of a wall that has clouds and trees painted on it and café-style seating in front, and tells her of Alan’s death. She recoils in horror and he sits heavily in one of the chairs. They enter a room with white curtains, bourgeois furniture, and a series of arches painted on the rear wall, and he tells her father about Alan as well. The father suggests that he can use his influence to get the police to allow them to investigate Cesare and the two exit together. However, before they can make their case, we cut to a dark alley with splotches all along the ground and only a few misshapen windows. A lone figure creeps along the relatively-straight walls (perhaps this neighborhood is too poor for large-scale Expressionism), and ducks into a jagged doorway. A woman leans out of a tiny window and screams murder, then we see the same alleyway, now more brightly lit, and the man running away with a knife in his hand. It is clearly not Cesare. He is quickly apprehended by a group of good citizens.

Next, we see Caligari inside of his trailer, preparing gruel for Cesare. Caligari opens the cabinet, now lying horizontal on his floor, and sits Cesare up, spooning the food into his mouth. We see Francis leading the father up to the front door of the trailer, and he knocks. Caligari puts Cesare back in his box and answers, examining the warrant that the father produces and looking frustrated and concerned, but showing them in. We cut back to the curved staircase, and the mob escorts its captive up to the jack-o-lantern police headquarters. With wagging fingers and shaking heads, they accuse the man of being the famous murderer. A dark, grizzled figure, he looks on stolidly, and is dragged off to a cell. Meanwhile, Francis and the father paw at the somnambulist, satisfying themselves that he cannot be awakened, while Caligari glares toward the camera. They request him to awaken Cesare, but Caligari refuses. Now Francis sees a paperboy and runs out to get the “Extrablatt” which tells of the arrest of the murderer in the alley. He and the girl’s father rush off, and Caligari sees them off with a sarcastic tip of his top hat.

We return briefly to the girl’s house, where we learn in an intertitle that she is disturbed by the long absence of her father, and we see her try to read from a small book – is it  prayer book or a novel? Meanwhile, Francis and her father have joined the police to interrogate the captive, who swears he had nothing to do with the first two murders, though he admits trying to simulate the murderer’s style in his own attack on the old woman, hoping to throw off suspicion from himself. The girl now appears at the carnival set, evidently after hours, because the crowds and motion are absent. She wanders the labyrinth of tents, looking confused, until she comes to the portrait of Cesare outside of Caligari’s tent. This she approaches, and Caligari comes out to greet her. She asks after her father and Caligari lures her into the tent. He brings her to the cabinet, displaying Cesare to her bewilderment. When he opens his eyes to look at her, she recoils and flees in horror.

The next intertitle tells us that we are seeing “after the funeral,” and Francis, father, and girl all proceed solemnly through a cardboard gate with a cross on top and walk between curving walls that have grass and flowers painted on them. Francis returns to the carnival at night, mirroring the girl’s approach to the tent, and then sneaking up to Caligari’s trailer. Peeking through the oddly-shaped window, he sees Caligari sitting up next to Cesare in his cabinet. The camera then cuts to the wall where Francis found the girl and told her of Alan’s death, but now it is night and Cesare creeps along it, extending his arm in a kind of fascist salute as he proceeds. We cut to the girl’s bedroom, which is filled with columns with ornate inscriptions and has tall windows with angled window panes. She sleeps on a bed with multiple white veils. Cesare peers in through one of the windows and removes part of a pane, stepping around the jagged bits of glass left behind. He approaches the sleeping figure with his knife in hand, but freezes as he starts to do the deed, dropping his knife and reaching out in longing for the girl. She suddenly awakes and there is a struggle, but Cesare no longer wishes to kill her, only possess her. We see the girl’s screams awaken two servants, who sleep with their beds head-to-head, and Cesare drags the girl back out the window.

By the time the household arrives, they are already gone. We see Cesare carrying her over crooked rooftops that seem to have a path painted on them for him to follow. Soon he is running over paths in the outskirts of town, which have paint a paint splash where he is designated to tire and drop her. The pursuers run up and retrieve the girl; Cesare flees the scene. He has taken to the jagged woods and fields, and has returned to his somnabulist’s pose, but he falls down shortly thereafter. Francis comes to the house just as the girl awakes from her faint and accuses Cesare, but Francis insists that he has been watching Cesare all night. Francis and the father get the police and return to the trailer to learn the truth. The truth is simple – Caligari has spent the night nursing a dummy designed to look like Cesare in order to throw off spies.

By the time they make this discovery, however, Caligari has fled, following the same path out of town that Cesare used, but without the extra weight to slow him down. Francis runs after him through the fields and mountain paths to an asylum (“Irrenanstalt”). He goes inside, discovering a huge hall with three arched stairways that all appear to lead to the same place, using painted perspective like at the police station to achieve apparent height and distance. A multi-rayed sun is painted on the floor to designate pathways, three of them leading to the stair entrances. The walls are straight, apart from the arches, and have intricate designs on them. An attendant brings a doctor to speak to Francis. Francis asks if there is a patient named Caligari in the institution and the doctor seems baffled. Another older doctor emerges and suggests that the speak to the director, who just returned today.

They ascend the middle staircase together and enter a hallway with walls that lean outward. The walls and floors are painted with tendrils or tentacles that coil at the ends. A door shaped like a tall isosceles triangle interrupts the pattern and the doctor leads Francis to it. Francis enters alone and walks into a chamber with inward-leaning walls, a skeleton, and an uneven, arched window at the back. books are piled all around a desk at the back of the room, and a hunched figure sits there. As Francis approaches, a close-up reveals the man at the desk – it is Caligari. Francis recoils and runs back down the stairs, informing the doctors of the director’s identity.

Strangely, they accept his story, at least enough to investigate while the director sleeps at his villa, a solid, dome-like structure surrounded by leafless trees. Inside the director’s office, they find his diary hidden behind the skeleton, and a book on somnambulism that details the activities of an 18th century mountebank named Caligari and his subject, Cesare, who would murder at his command. In the diary they read of his ambition to repeat this experiment when a tall somnambulist is brought into the institution, and we see reenactments of his joy at finding his Cesare, and voices insisting that he “must become Caligari” (“Du musst Caligari warden!”) outside of his villa.

Convinced by this evidence, the doctors go with Francis to the fields to find Cesare’s body, which they bring back to confront the director, who immediately collapses when he sees it, then attacks the doctors. They restrain him and put him into a dark cell adorned with what look like paintings of electrified micro-organisms. That would seem to be the ending, and, according to Siegfried Kracauer, it would have been if the writer’s (Carl Mayer)  wishes had been followed. But Robert Wiene has a bit more for us to consider. Hence, we return to the garden of the asylum, where the narrator has been telling his story to the old man. He assures him that the madman remains in his cell to this day.

But then we go back inside the asylum, to that great hall, where members of our cast wander in their various dream-worlds, attended by kindly nuns and attendants. A bearded man, looking like Karl Marx, shouts incoherently, a woman plays an invisible piano, another carries a doll which she carefully strokes. When Francis and the old man walk near to Cesare, who is staring fondly at a flower, Francis jumps back and warns “If you let him tell your future, you’re as good as dead!” (“sonst sind Sie tot…”). The old man leaves him and he sees the girl, sitting on a throne. He asks if she will marry him (calling her Jane, the first time we see her name in an intertitle), but she says that as a queen she is not free to follow her heart (“Wir Königinnen…dürfen nicht nach unseren Herzen wählen”). Finally, the director, look more coiffed than we’ve seen him before approaches, and Francis shrieks that his is Caligari, and that he, the director is the one who is truly insane, not Francis. The attendants restrain him and the director assures them that now that he understands his obsession, he can surely cure him. The movie ends on a tight close-up of his face.

Kracauer would have us believe that this ending undermines the “revolutionary” nature of the film, but I have always disagreed. If undermining authority is revolutionary, then it seems to me that no authority can be more final than that of the narrator of a story. If the narrator is himself insane, then there is truly nothing that can be trusted, inside or outside of that narrative. Germany was in the throes of revolutionary uncertainty and revolutionary possibilities when this film was made, and everything, from the visuals to the story, to the ending of this movie reaffirm the sense of randomness and mistrust that pervaded. Apart from this, by the end it is hard to believe that any audience would be ready to accept the director’s word as trustworthy – that lingering close-up gives us time to wonder what sort of “cure” he has in mind for our narrator and whether it is really better than the disease.

I’m not going to say a lot more about this film because I tried this time to pack most of my analysis into the (very long) synopsis I gave above. This is one of those movies in which the meaning permeates through each shot, it is there to see, out in the open. It wears its heart on its sleeve, as it were. It seemed the best approach to discussing it was to really get into discussing almost every shot as it happens, not wait until the end to come back and think it over. I could do this because I’ve watched it dozens, perhaps hundreds of times in my life, unlike most of the movies I review here. Nothing else is quite like it, and no one could ever have repeated it. Expressionism in the movies soon became rather more subtle, with aspects of lighting and set design used to highlight emotions, without necessarily depicting them in such a heavy-handed manner. You just couldn’t keep up this level of obvious unreality, or expect that it could be sustained. It is probably for the best that Caligari remains unique – but it is also for the best that it remains, arguably the first “real” horror the screen has ever shown.

Director: Robert Wiene

Camera: Willy Hameister

Starring: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover, Friedrich Fehler, Hans Heinz von Twardowski

Run Time: 75

You can watch it for free: here.