26 February 1920 on the Kurfürstendamm; it’s a typically cold, grey Berlin day and the facade of the Marmorhaus, with it’s cool, clean marble and tall, thin, art nouveau windows contrasts grey against grey.
In the Chancellory the Ehrhardt Brigade have taken control. They marched into the city through the Tiergarten, under the Brandenburg Gate and seized control of an empty building and therefore Berlin. Not that you’d know standing in the wood lined lobby of the Marmorhaus, with the bustle of people and the excited sound of chatter rising in anticipation of the film they’re about to watch. Tonight is the premier of Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, tonight is the night when the shadows step into the light.
The story really starts in Hamburg in 1913, when a young man named Hans Janowitz notices a girl. He’s at an amusement park on the Reeperbahn by the Holstenwall, when he notices a young woman ‘drunk with the happiness of life’. Fascinated, he decides to follow her but she disappears into some bushes, moments later a business man emerges. The next day Janowitz learns that the girl, Gertrude, had been murdered in the park. He attends the funeral only to see the same business man standing at the grave. Janowitz had no evidence against the man so did nothing, went away to fight in the First World War and when he came back, he found the story still haunted him.
In 1918 Janowitz met an Austrian, Carl Mayer who had spent most of the war in the care of an army psychiatrist. Mayer’s father had shot himself, leaving the sixteen year old boy to look after his three younger brothers; he cracked under the pressure and found himself having to undergo numerous psychiatric examinations. His experiences filled him with hatred for the psychiatrist treating him. Janowitz wrote that the psychiatrist had become the model for Caligari: ‘He represented the authoritative pressure that was brought to bear upon the powerless young man’.
These experiences stayed with both men and when they were advised by a friend of Mayer’s to collaborate on a film script, these two incidents naturally became the main inspiration for what would become one of cinema’s most influential films.
Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari tells the story of Francis, a young man who lives in the small town of Holstenwall and his love for a girl named Jane. A fair comes to town and Dr. Caligari exhibits his miracle fortune teller, The Somnambulist, Cesare. Soon after the arrival of the fair the murders begin and the first to fall victim is the town clerk, a man who just hours before had been rude and indifferent to Dr. Caligari.
The fair continues and the townspeople carry on with their lives, gathering around to witness the extraordinary prophecies of The Somnambulist. The first to ask him a question is Alan, Francis’ best friend, he asks‘how long will I live’ and Cesare replies ‘until dawn’. By dawn Alan is dead, murdered by a mysterious shadow wielding a knife.
The following day a man, Jakob Straat attempts to murder an old woman, hoping to pin her death on the ‘real’ murderer. He is caught and accused of murdering the others, he protests and whilst the Police Commissioner does not believe him, Francis does.
Another day passes and Alan is buried, that night a black figure creeps across the town and emerges at Jane’s window, it is Cesare. He enters her bedroom and stands above the sleeping figure, he is peaceful and calm as though admiring her, he goes to touch her but she wakes and starts screaming. Cesare, as though startled back to his senses grabs Jane and fights with her, she passes out and he carries her out of the window and runs.
The screaming has woken the servants, they go into Jane’s room to find that she’s gone and the window is open. They follow, chasing Cesare across the town until he puts the girl down and flees on his own, still pursued by the servants. His strength is failing, he comes to a field, collapses from exhaustion and dies.
In the meantime Caligari’s secret is out and he also flees, pursued by Francis to an insane asylum where he thinks he’s lost him. He asks some doctors whether they’ve seen him, they answer no but tell him that the hospital’s Director has returned and ‘would he like to see him?’ They show him to the office and to Francis’ horror, the Director is Caligari. He collapses then runs away and speaks with the other doctors.
That night they set about proving that the Director is Caligari; they sneak into his office and start to rummage through his books. We then learn that the Director has spent his life specialising in sleeping sickness and has become obsessed with an old Italian story about a doctor, Caligari and his Somnambulist, Cesare, who he manipulates to murder at his will. The Director wants to know if it is possible for a Somnambulist to become ‘simply a mechanical death machine for its client.’ When Cesare is admitted he becomes even more obsessed and sees this as his opportunity to fulfil his life’s work. He starts to see the words ‘Du Musst Caligari Werden’ (you must become Caligari), he runs from the hospital but the words follow and he becomes more and more insane. The doctors grab the Director and throw him into a cell in the asylum.
We cut back to Francis sat on the bench talking as he was at the beginning of the film, we discover that it is not the Director who is insane, but Francis. The camera turns around to show us the rest of the courtyard, Jane is there and so is Cesare.
The framing story of Francis recounting the tale as an inmate of the asylum was not written by Janowitz and Mayer, it was added later, much to their annoyance. As they wrote it, Caligari is about power and the things that powerful men make ordinary men do, Caligari is really about the war. Janowitz said that:
Caligari . . . was supposed to represent the insane evil of “an unlimited [state] authority that idolises power,” and Cesare was supposed to represent “the common man who, under the pressure of compulsory military service, is drilled to kill and to be killed.” The triumph of the student at the end, therefore showed that “reason overpowers unreasonable power.”
Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s – Otto Friedrich
This allegory was seen as dangerous and so toned down with the framing story, although once you know this about the film, it is easy to see the writers’ original intention.
I don’t know what it was like to see this film in 1920, as a modern viewer my eye is always caught by the haunting figure of Cesare. He’s so bewitching, so oddly creepy and beautiful that I find it hard to imagine that the first audiences of this film were any different. But this is the first horror film, the first film to see shadows creeping into rooms and murdering people in their beds. Cesare is the first twisted figure, a gaunt pale face looking at the world through darkness, staring with his heavy lidded and strangely innocent eyes.
In the scene when he abducts Jane we see two conflicting sides to Cesare. At first he is taken by her beauty and seeks only to touch her, there is warmth, longing, desire, maybe even love in his eyes. When she wakes he turns into the monster that Caligari has made him, he fights to restrain her and there is nothing in his eyes now but cold hearted violence. The switch is instinctive and the scene makes it clear that Cesare has no control over his actions, he is simply the ‘mechanical death machine’ he was moulded to be. The significance to this scene is that his pause comes when she is sleeping and he is alone with her. Jane is in the state that The Somnambulist has spent most of his life in, he does not attack her when she absolutely cannot defend herself, just as he cannot defend himself against Caligari. They are both victims, both are vulnerable to the will of someone stronger than themselves and perhaps too, in that brief pause, Cesare knows this.
Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is famously an Expressionist film and it’s influence as such is quite unmatched. Of course there were other Expressionist films from this time, but even when it was released, Caligari stood out from the crowd and it has remained that way. It’s sets were small and restrictive, which oddly enough is what dictated some of the look of the film. The seats the clerk and police officers sit on are high because it was the only way to keep significant characters in shot, whilst action continued in the foreground. The fairground scene rotates like the decorated umbrellas that turn in the background, these carousels echo the movements of the people in what is ultimately a fractured and chaotic world. It seems like a world that has been pieced back together, its odd angles and shadows are possibly all that’s left in a country which had been crippled by the war it reflects. The exact historical setting of Caligari isn’t known, it’s both modern and retrospective and I can’t help but feel that that’s the point. The political upheaval and uncertainty at the end of the war left Germany a much changed country, at the time of the Caligari’s release it had recently become a republic after the Kaiser abdicated. The Germany of old was disappearing and it was being replaced by a new world of Expressionism, Communism and Liberalism that had never been seen before. The war wounded could be seen everyday on the streets, disfigured men missing limbs, shattered by the first industrial war. The things that terrified us were no longer ghouls that lurked under our beds, but the real ‘monsters’ that hid themselves in shadow because they were just as afraid of this new world as the rest of us. It’s important to remember that cinema’s first horror icon is nothing more than a man who is ill. Whether consciously or not, I believe that Caligari, with its false world manages to perfectly represent what was really happening outside those beautiful sets.
The audience at that first screening in the Marmorhaus in 1920 were spellbound, when the film finished it was, according to Janowitz:
Greeted by a stunned silence. . . Suddenly this stunned silence was shattered by applause, applause rising to a crescendo that broke into a thunderous outburst of frantic calling clapping, a raving audience, shouting with joy and acclamation.
BFI Film Classics: Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari – David Robinson
That acclaim has never diminished and whilst modern audiences may no longer scream when Cesare opens his eyes, they’re certainly still left spellbound.