The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (original title: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is a 1920 German silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene. It is one of the earliest, most influential and most artistically acclaimed German Expressionist films. It has been dubbed "the cult film par excellence," running continuously at the same Paris movie house from 1920 through 1927.

Contents

Plot overview

The film tells the story of the deranged Doctor Caligari and his faithful sleepwalking Cesare and their connection to a string of murders in a German mountain village, Holstenwall. Caligari presents one of the earliest examples of a motion picture "frame story" in which the body of the plot is presented as a flashback, as told by Francis.

The narrator, Francis, and his friend Alan visit a carnival in the village where they see Dr. Caligari and Cesare, whom the doctor is displaying as an attraction. Caligari brags that Cesare can answer any question he is asked. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare tells Alan that he will die tomorrow at dawn — a prophecy which turns out to be fulfilled.

Francis, along with his girlfriend Jane, investigate Caligari and Cesare, which eventually leads to Jane's kidnapping by Cesare. Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, but the hypnotized slave relents after her beauty captivates him. He carries Jane out of her house, leading the townsfolk on a lengthy chase. Francis discovers Caligari is the head of the local insane asylum, and with the help of his colleagues discovers he's obsessed with the story of a previous Doctor Caligari, who used a somnambulist to murder people as a traveling act.

Cesare falls to his death during the pursuit and the townsfolk discover that Caligari had created a dummy of Cesare to distract Francis. After being confronted with the dead Cesare, Caligari breaks down and reveals his mania and is imprisoned in his asylum. The influential twist ending reveals that Francis' flashback is actually his fantasy: Caligari is his asylum doctor, who, after this revelation of his patient's delusion, claims to be able to cure him.

Responses

Critics worldwide have praised the film for its Expressionist style, complete with wild, distorted set design—a striking use of mise en scène. Caligari has been cited as an influence on film noir, one of the earliest horror films, and a model for directors for many decades, including Alfred Hitchcock.

Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler (1947) postulates that the film can be read as an allegory for German social attitudes in the period preceding World War II. He argues that the character of Caligari represents a tyrannical figure, to whom the only alternative is social chaos (represented by the fairground). However, Kracauer's work has been largely discredited by contemporary scholars of German cinema, for example by Thomas Elsaesser in Weimar Cinema and After, who describes the legacy of Kracauer's work as a "historical imaginary". Elsaesser claims that Kracauer studied too few films to make his thesis about the social mindset of Germany legitimate and that the discovery and publication of the original screenplay of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari undermines his argument about the revolutionary intent of its writers. Elsaesser's alternative thesis is that the filmmakers adopted an Expressionist style as a method of product differentiation, establishing a distinct national product against the increasing import of American films. Dietrich Scheunemann, somewhat in defense of Kracauer, noted that he didn't have "the full range of materials at (his) disposal". However, that fact "has clearly and adversely affected the discussion of the film", referring to the fact that the script of Caligari wasn't rediscovered until 1977 and that Kracauer hadn't seen the film in around 20 years when he wrote the work.

History

Writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer met each other in Berlin following World War I. The two saw the then-new film medium as a revolutionary form of artistic expression—visual storytelling that necessitated collaboration between writers and painters, cameramen, actors, directors. They felt that film was the ideal medium through which to both call attention to the emerging pacifism in postwar Germany and exhibit the radical anti-bourgeois art.

Although neither had connections to any Berlin film company, they decided to concoct a scenario. As both were enthusiastic about Paul Wegener's works, they chose to write a horror film. The duo drew from past experiences—Janowitz had disturbing memories of a night in 1913, in Hamburg: After leaving a fair he had walked into a park bordering the Holstenwall and glimpsed a stranger as he disappeared into the shadows after having mysteriously emerged from the bushes. The next morning, a young woman's ravaged body was found. Mayer was still embittered about his sessions during the war with an autocratic, highly ranked, military psychiatrist.

At night, Janowitz and Mayer would often go to a nearby fair. One evening, they saw a sideshow titled "Man and Machine," in which a man did feats of strength and forecast the future while supposedly in a hypnotic trance. Inspired by this, Janowitz and Mayer devised their story that night and wrote it in the following six weeks. The name "Caligari" came from a book Mayer read, in which an officer named Caligari was mentioned.

When the duo approached Erich Pommer about the story, Pommer tried to have them thrown out of his small Decla studio. But when they insisted on telling him their film story, Pommer was so impressed that he bought it on the spot, and agreed to have the film produced in expressionistic style, partly as a concession to his studio only having a limited quota of power and light.

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