The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

By Bilge Ebiri

Bilge Ebiri is a filmmaker and writer living in New York. His reviews and features appear regularly in New York magazine, Time Out New York, and Minneapolis City Pages.

Among the silent film genres, German expressionism seems to have dated the least when experienced today - perhaps because so many of its foremost practitioners came to America and helped to perfect the Hollywood aesthetic. But oddly enough, one of the very first and most influential expressionist films, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is a strange exception to that, as it indulges in an elaborate theatricality both in its visual design and its performances - so much so that at times it feels as if it belongs in another universe entirely. Kino's beautiful new DVD release, made from a restored German edition of the film, preserving the original hand tinting and the stylized lettering of the intertitles, presents a renewed opportunity to revisit this seminal work.

The story is quite bare bones: A young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his best friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), both in love with the same woman, come to a traveling fair one day, and see a demonstration by a bizarre, black-clad somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who can answer any question about the future. Alan asks him how long he has to live: "Until dawn," Cesare answers. When Alan winds up dead the following day, Francis begins to suspect the somnambulist, as well as his mysterious keeper, an elderly bespectacled hypnotist named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).

The staginess of Caligari is at times startling: One can almost hear the floorboards creak as the actors move back and forth on Wiene's twisted sets. There's even a small (unintentional?) laugh when Francis first opens the unnaturally angled, elongated, trapezoidal door to Caligari's office. While the later expressionist directors experimented with technological developments like distorting lenses and moving cameras, Wiene's film plays out almost like a filmed play - albeit with some pretty amazing decor. But one also wonders if the film's theatricality may be part of a more deliberate aesthetic approach.

The German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer saw in Caligari's power of hypnosis a symbolism for "that manipulation of the soul which Hitler was the first to practice on a gigantic scale." (Kracauer, of course, saw resonance with Hitler in many expressionist films.) And the film itself arguably suggests a similar type of mass hypnosis. The story is told via a framing device, wherein Francis relates his tale to a nameless stranger. At the end, it turns out that Francis is an inmate in an insane asylum, and the doctor in charge is none other than Caligari himself. At the time, the film's writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, originally objected to this framing device, which they felt suggested that Francis was the madman and Caligari the noble physician, thereby diluting the anti-authoritarian thrust of their original work. But although the doctor at the end is far more mild-mannered than the mad hypnotist of Francis's tale, the film seems a bit more ambivalent about the final point. All of the preceding story's main characters - including Cesare, who is supposed to be dead by this point, are in the asylum, so this scene is not merely a coda to what has happened previously. But if the structure ultimately absolves the authority figure of Caligari, what does it do with the authority figure of the storyteller (not just Francis, perhaps, but also the filmmakers), if this tale is being told by a madman?

Considered in that light, Wiene's "staginess" doesn't feel like such an unfortunate choice after all. There is something odd about this world: The actors are ostentatious, their movements too deliberate. Cesare might be the only one under hypnosis in the actual story, but all the actors have a somnambulant aura about them. The flat plane of the action contrasts sharply with the angled doors, the painted backdrops and forced perspectives of the setting. These jarring elements, indeed, may well be clues to the unreliability of the narrator, and by extension the cinematic image we are being presented with. What seemed on Wiene's part to initially be some dated and unfortunate directorial choices turns out to be a significantly more complex approach, calling to question the very reliability of the cinematic apparatus itself.

Indeed, this is why Caligari continues to be a representative work of expressionism, and why it still works today as a story -- its stylized representation of an off-kitler world is actually surprisingly consistent and compelling. It's a reality other than the one we're used to. The later expressionists would create this illusion using more cinematic devices, but Wiene settles for the inconsistency between varying media -- the collision of theatre and cinema.

                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002