Werner Krauss - Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt - Cesare
Lil Dagover - Jane Olsen
Friedrich Feher - Francis
Hans Twardowski - Alan
Rudolph Lettinger - Dr. Olsen
Robert Wiene - Director
Erich Pommer - Producer
Carl Mayer - Screenwriter
Walter Reimann - Costumes
Hermann Warm - Set Designer
Giuseppe Becce - Film Score
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was, almost from the day it was released in 1919, one of the towering landmarks of motion picture history, and it remains so today. Directed by Robert Wiene (1881-1938), this internationally acclaimed German film is known not for its stars or plot, but for its style. German expressionism in film was an artistic movement advancing the theory that every component of a movie--the photography, scenery, lighting, costuming and acting--should be intentionally stylized and even wildly exaggerated in order to achieve a unified emotional impact.
Although the faltering post-World War I German economy undoubtedly had a partial influence on the widespread adoption of this technique--the flat, painted backdrops and crazily stylized scenery of Caligari were, after all, very economical, no matter how creatively designed--it is a valid artistic theory, and this film provides a textbook example of the style. After the opening credits for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a cryptic but intriguing title card informing informs the audience that the story they are about to see is: "A modern representation of an 11th century myth in which a mountebank monk bears a strange and mysterious influence over a somnambulist."
The opening scene then focuses on two well-dressed men, one young and the other elderly, seated on a bench in what appears to be a garden. The older man turns to his companion and ominously intones: "Spirits surround us on every side--they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child." A young woman clad in a shapeless white gown then wanders trance-like past the two men. The young man remarks: "My betrothed . . . what she and I have experienced is yet more remarkable than the story you have told me. I will tell you . . ." The wandering girl is then shown again in a strangely evocative soft-focus shot as she staggers off-screen. The young man continues: "In Holstenwall, where I was born . . ."
So begins The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. For such an influential film, Caligari's plot is amazingly simple. Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a fairground mesmerist, exhibits a sleepwalker, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who makes predictions for the audience; after the show, Caligari regularly sends Cesare forth to do his sinister bidding--including murder. Woven into this premise is a romantic triangle subplot involving a girl, Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover), and her two young suitors, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and Alan (Hans Heinz von Twardowski). Framing the central plot is the previously described introduction and a matching epilogue revealing that the entire story has been a delusion imagined by Francis, and that the garden seen in the prologue is really the grounds of an insane asylum. Most of the cast is then glimpsed wandering the grounds, with Caligari presiding as the administrator.
Most feature-length movies of this period were based on either novels or stage plays, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a true screen original, written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. A contribution to the script was made by Fritz Lang, who imposed--over the objections of Mayer and Janowitz--the insane asylum framing device, which was really unnecessary, since the distorted, almost cartoonish sets designed by Hermann Warm and Walter Reimann provided more than enough indication of madness.
These sets are cunningly designed; though highly stylized and flat, they somehow manage to present a convincing environment, perhaps because the entire film is shot in this manner on a soundstage, with no "reality" intruding to disrupt the atmosphere. Light, shadow and other details are starkly painted on the scenery flats, even the actors seem painted, with Caligari sporting dark brush strokes in his hair and wearing lined Mickey Mouse-style gloves. The acting, when viewed today, ranges from silent movie outrageousness to almost internalized low-key realism, with Krauss, Dagover and Veidt coming off best. Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), perhaps best known today for his supporting role as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), was a talented, expressive, physically imposing performer capable of some wonderful things.
Veidt manages some genuinely creepy moments as Cesare in Caligari, staggering across the painted, stylized landscapes, his mascara-highlighted eyes bulging with menace. Veidt's finest moment, though, occurs via a well-placed title card when the character of Alan requests a prediction during Cesare's exhibition at the fair. "How long will I live?" Alan timorously inquires. Cesare leans forward ominously, and in a superb moment of black humor intones: "The time is short--you die at dawn!" after which he validates the prophecy by murdering Alan the next morning! Cesare's general appearance, black clothing and stiff, hesitant gait influenced Boris Karloff's monster in Frankenstein (1931). Director James Whale and his crew were very much under the spell of Caligari's visual design as well, although the expressionism in Frankenstein is far gentler, and the sets--though still exaggerated--far more realistic.
On its first release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an instant world-wide sensation. The film was exhibited in Paris non-stop for seven years, and as late as 1958 it was chosen by a panel of 117 film historians from 26 countries at the Brussels World's Fair as one of the 12 most important films of all time. Because his other work is uneven, exhibiting little or no outstanding talent, and because he never again directed a film to equal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, some have tended to belittle Robert Wiene's contributions to this milestone film. But while the input of Caligari's art directors, performers and seenarists was of major importance, Wiene's tightly controlled handling of these elements is obvious and undeniable. Although Wiene, who made his directorial debut in 1912 with Die Waffen der Jugend, helmed many crass and trivial films before and after Caligari, his careful supervision of The Hands of Orlac in 1924 verifies his talent.
The influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been widespread, and was especially obvious in the 30s and 40s, when the film was closely studied and copied. Besides the aforementioned Frankenstein, later films that were most obviously indebted to Caligari included the excellent Universal horror movies Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), not to overlook Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), which used exaggerated set design both to impart atmosphere and provide visual commentary on the baroque, ostentatious life-style of its ruthless newspaper-baron antagonist.
A 1962 "remake" entitled The Cabinet of Caligari, scripted by Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), was a remake in name only and had little to do with the original, though Bloch did make a commendable effort to duplicate the silent film's emphasis on the unreality of madness by placing the action in an asylum.
--ROY KINNARD, from Horror in
Silent Films, 1995
A selection of Caligari related films.
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A selection of Caligari in books.
History of Horror
THE SILENT ERA
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