Monday 4 May 2020

A Centenary of Fantastic Films - 1920 #2 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920: Dir Robert Wiene)

People with an interest in film will probably automatically know the names of the directors of classic silent fright features: FW Murnau's Nosferatu (1922); Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera (1925); or Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs (1928), for example.

So the fact that Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, isn't so well known, is perhaps a surprise. Until you look a little deeper. For a long time the definitive critical work on the movie, Siegfried Kracauer's 1947 work 'From Caligari to Hitler,' was damning about Wiene's narrative decision, for commercial reasons, to add a 'frame' to his story of horror and madness, therefore converting it from, as Kracauer sees it, a truly 'revolutionary' movie into a 'conformist' one.

More recently Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg's 1999 book 'Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Wiene' has taken a less polemic approach to the subject. They recognise, in the book's introduction, that Wiene wasn't a genius, but a relatively undistinguished but capable director representative of the type of people making films in Germany after the First World War. The period saw a huge rise in people attending cinemas in the country, and filmmakers responded to this with record numbers of new films, largely aimed at middle or lowbrow crowds, who made up the lion's share of the cinema going population. So it's therefore unsurprising that Wiene, who had worked on at least 43 films pre Caligari, should be targeting markets most likely to want to watch his movies. Admittedly with Caligari he did much more than that, which I'll cover later.

Robert Wiene was born in Poland in 1873. His father, Carl, was an actor, but Robert initially chose a different path, studying law in Vienna and later establishing a practice in Weimar. Early in the twentieth century Wiene moved into theatre management and then, in 1912, he became both film scriptwriter and director. Before Caligari his film choices had included comedies, tragedies and melodramas.
Working to a script by writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer (the former of the pair also critical of Wiene's intervention in the framing element of the film) Caligari fuses a totally expressionistic look and feel with an (almost) straightforward murder story, one of the first films to incorporate the radical new art movement into film set design.

The film opens with Francis (Friedrich Feher) sitting in a garden with a friend, and seeing Jane (Lil Dagover) walk by in an apparent trance; he describes her as his "fiancée." Francis decides to tell his strange story to his friend, depicted as a flashback.  Francis tells of an old man (Werner Krauss, the film's titular doctor) who petitions the town clerk of Holstenwall to set up a sideshow at its annual fair, the focus of which is Cesare (Conrad Veidt) the somnambulist, who sleeps in a wooden box and has been borderline catatonic for all of his 23 years. Although the clerk mocks him, the permit is granted: but later that night the official is stabbed in his bed.

The sleeper awakes! Cesare (Conrad Veidt)
Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), who are both vying for the affections of Jane (the character we saw at the beginning of the film) decide to visit Caligari's attraction. Once awakened, Cesare will answer any question put to him, so Alan asks how long he has left to live: a leering Cesare tells him "Till dawn tomorrow!" Accordingly Alan dies before daybreak, again stabbed by an unseen murderer. Shocked at the death of his friend, and with the assistance of Jane's father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger), Francis undertakes to find out the identity of the murderer. Briefly thrown off by a red herring copycat killer (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who hopes his failed slaying attempt would be ascribed to the mass murderer, our hero discovers that the director of the local asylum, obsessed with the subject of somnambulism and an 18th century mystic called Caligari, has literally become Caligari after Cesare, the perfect subject, was admitted to his hospital.

As the story closes the director is unmasked as a madman and put in a straitjacket. We return to Francis, still narrating the story, only to find that he's an inmate in the same asylum, along with Jane (deluded that she's royalty) and Cesare, who seems to have the mind of a child; the whole story has been made up by the insane Francis.

Repeat viewings of Caligari expose the multiple layers of the story within a story (and with the mystic 'Caligari' section, a story within that too!). One looks for clues to Francis's madness within the body of the plot, chiefly illustrated by the stylised sets whose wonky angles and skewed perspectives suggest a damaged mind (it is surely no coincidence that expressionist art, which the Nazis later derided as 'degenerate,' should have such a close affinity with the dual themes of madness and the grotesque). As the events play out, with the logic and rationalism of Francis' investigations taking place against the bizarre town backdrops, the film never once fails to be unsettling. Caligari's hut, which houses the sleeping Cesare, is illuminated both by artificial light and natural sun rays painted onto the sets: and in one scene the director, obsessed with the mystic Caligari, wanders around town with the words "Du musst Caligari werden " ("You must become Caligari") appearing in the air.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari has been hijacked by many critics over the last hundred years to support a variety of agenda. But viewed as a piece of fantastic cinema it's a perfect melding of art and madness, where the supposedly sanest man in the story turns out to be the craziest.

You can watch The Cabinet of Dr Caligari here.

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