The Seasoned Ticket #111

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Seasoned Ticket 111

I’m laying off new releases for Halloween weekend, and offering some slightly-updated notes I made for an introduction to a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 2009. It’s been 100 years since the first showings of this landmark movie, and age has not withered its strangeness.

Speaking of horror, a reminder: The latest series in Scarecrow Academy’s “The Art in Horror: Horror and the Director” launches Saturday, October 31, via Zoom, at 2 p.m. Pacific Time. Register here to join our conversation about Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

So here’s a piece that was meant to be spoken to a general audience. Happy Halloween!

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was truly a collaborative effort – which adds to the feeling that the film was not just the work of a particular author, a talented director or something, but really a collective expression of its moment – something dark and new that could somehow only have happened in Germany in 1920. The project began with a script by Carl Mayer, who was a significant contributor to German film at this time (including the Last Laugh) and Hans Janowitz, who both wanted to create a different kind of film. The script came to the attention of producer Erich Pommer, who was in charge of Decla studio and who would subsequently be in a similar position at UFA, the legendary mega-studio that ruled German film in the 1920s and actually rivaled Hollywood.

It might have been Pommer or it might have been the designers he hired that decided to make the movie look a little “crazy.” Those artists were Hermann Warm, the art director, and the set and costume creators Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann; their method was to create the world of Caligari entirely within the studio, with exaggeratedly painted sets that were in line with ideas of Expressionism, a movement in art at that time, which declared, “objects and fact don’t matter – only the interior visions they provoke. The artist grasps what is behind them, free from ‘false reality.’ The Expressionist seeks not momentary form, but the eternal, permanent meaning of objects.”

Mayer and Janowitz were fascinated by a visit to a carnival hypnotist and that became the basis for their setting. This situation, of a controlling criminal presence who lulls others into blind servitude, has led many commentators to draw the line between this and the horrors to come in Germany, the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, offering order and dictatorial leadership in the midst of chaos. It should also be seen as a reflection of the authoritarian era in Germany during the decades before 1920, which had led to a catastrophic World War. Seeing all the jagged lines, the sharp points and insane patterned floors and costumes, not to mention the splendidly Expressionistic acting, especially by two of the most famous actors of the Weimar era, Werner Krauss as Caligari and Conrad Veidt as the somnambulist, Cesare—with all that, it’s impossible not to read the anxiety and disruption in Germany after World War I, the mood of national shame and disaster. It is a vision of a world collapsing in on itself.

The director of the film is Robert Wiene, who made some other interesting movies in this era, including an Expressionist version of Crime and Punishment, and The Hands of Orlac, a lurid tale of a pianist who receives a hand transplant, featuring another bravura performance by Conrad Veidt. Caligari was almost directed by Fritz Lang, who was just beginning one of the great careers in cinema and it was supposedly Lang that suggested the framing story, which if you’ve never actually seen this movie, might still surprise and unnerve you at the end. It has been debated whether this framing story lessens the stylistic approach of the film or its possible political meanings, but I actually don’t think it does – for me it removes any sense of comforting resolution and renders the whole movie unstable and crazy – especially because there’s no distinction made between a secure, sane perspective, if any exists, and an insane universe.

Caligari was a huge and influential success, confirming the new excitement of German movies. One writer, quoted in the New York Times, suggested that if American films had followed the outlines of the stage play, Caligari suggested something new: “As far removed from the speaking stage or indeed from the world as we know it as dreams are removed from our waking experience. The producers of Dr Caligari have succeeded in creating, from paint and cardboard, settings which actually seem to live and move, and to express human moods and feelings.” Another: “Do you remember the fear that you felt when you were a guest in The House of Usher? The story of Caligari is entirely dissimilar, yet awakens the same kind of fear—that fear of things having no reason and loving evil instinctively.” (“The fear of things having no reason”—what a superb phrase for a movie that seems to be pointing us toward a nightmare.)

Not all the movies that are sometimes grouped under the heading of Expressionist film are really all that Expressionist, but they do show the influence, even if only in the use of distorted angles or heavy shadowing. You could almost say that the great influence of Caligari was not that it spawned a vast number of Expressionist films, but that it turned on a light switch, telling people: you can do things like this, or almost anything, in the movies.

Caligari is not a museum piece, and if you consider its other key metaphor at work—that of the movie-watching experience itself, in which the mesmerist-film puts us viewers into a spell of sorts—you might be able to, even at a 100 years’ distance, tap into that writer’s initial sense of dread. I hope you enjoy this truest flowering of German Expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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