Note: CABINET DES DR CALIGARI 01 // The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Werner Krauss // The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Holstenwall
Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, and by far the most famous example of it. It is considered a classic film, often shown in introductory film courses, film societies and museums, and is one of the most famous German films from the silent era. Film scholar Lewis Jacobs called it "most widely discussed film of the time". Caligari helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema, while also bringing legitimacy to the cinema among literary intellectuals within Germany itself. Lotte Eisner has said it was in Expressionism, as epitomized in Caligari, that "the German cinema found its true nature." The term "caligarism" was coined as a result, referring to a style of similar films that focus on such themes as bizarre madness and obsession, particularly through the use of visual distortion. Expressionism was late in coming to cinema, and by the time Caligari was released, many German critics felt the art form had become commercialized and trivialized; such well-known writers as Kasimir Edschmid, René Schickele, and Yvan Goll had already pronounced the Expressionist movement dead by the time Caligari arrived in theatres. Few other purely Expressionistic films were produced, and Caligari was the only one readily accessible for several decades. Among the few films to fully embrace the Expressionist style were Genuine (1920) and Raskolnikow (1923), both directed by Wiene, as well as From Morn to Midnight (1920), Torgus (1921), Das Haus zum Mond (1921), Haus ohne Tür und ohne Fenster (1921) and Waxworks.
While few other purely Expressionistic films were made, Caligari still had a major influence over other German directors, and many of the film's Expressionist elements – particularly the use of setting, light and shadow to represent the dark psychology of its characters – became prevalent in German cinema. Among the films to use these elements were Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924), G. W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul (1926), and Lang's Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). The success of Caligari also affected the way in which German films were produced during the 1920s. For example, the majority of major German films over the next few years moved away from location shooting and were fully filmed in studios, which assigned much more importance to designers in German cinema. Robinson argues this led to the rise of a large number of film designers – such as Hans Dreier, Rochus Gliese, Albin Grau, Otto Hunte, Alfred Junge, Erich Kettelhut and Paul Leni – and that effect was felt abroad as many of these talents later emigrated from Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party. Additionally, the success of Caligari's collaborative effort – including its director, set designers and actors – influenced subsequent film production in Germany for many years, making teamwork a hallmark of German cinema in the Weimar Republic.
The effect of Caligari was felt not just in German cinema, but internationally as well. Both Rotha and film historian William K. Everson wrote that the film probably had as much of a long-term effect on Hollywood directors as Battleship Potemkin (1925). In his book The Film Til Now, Rotha wrote that Caligari and Potemkin were the "two most momentous advances in the development of the cinema", and said Caligari "served to attract to the cinema audience many people who had hitherto regarded the film as the low watermark of intelligence". Caligari influenced the style and content of Hollywood films in the 1920s and early 1930s, particularly in films such as The Bells (1926), The Man Who Laughs (1928) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and had a major influence on American horror films of the 1930s, some of which featured an antagonist using Caligari-like supernatural abilities to control others, such as Dracula (1931), Svengali (1931) and The Mad Genius (1931). Kaes said both Caligari's stylistic elements, and the Cesare character in particular, influenced the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s, which often prominently featured some sort of monster, such as Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The Expressionism of Caligari also influenced American avant-garde film, particularly those that used fantastic settings to illustrate an inhuman environment overpowering an individual. Early examples include The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), The Last Moment (1928) and The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928). LoBrutto wrote, "Few films throughout motion picture history have had more influence on the avant-garde, art, and student cinema than Caligari".
Caligari and German Expressionism heavily influenced the American film noir period of the 1940s and 50s, both in visual style and narrative tone. Noir films tended to portray everyone, even the innocent, as the object of suspicion, a common thread in Caligari. The genre also employs several Expressionistic elements in its dark and shadowy visual style, stylized and abstract photography, and distorted and expressive make-up and acting. Caligari also influenced films produced in the Soviet Union, such as Aelita (1924), and The Overcoat. Observers have noted the black and white films of Ingmar Bergman bear a resemblance to the German films of the 1920s, and film historian Roy Armes has called him "the true heir of Caligari". Bergman himself, however, has downplayed the influence of German Expressionism on his work. Caligari has also affected stage theatre. Siegfried Kracauer wrote that the film's use of the iris-in has been mimicked in theatrical productions, with lighting used to single out a lone actor.
Caligari continues to be one of the most discussed and debated films from the Weimar Republic. Two major books have played a large part in shaping the perception of the film and its effect on cinema as a whole: Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Lotte Eisner's The Haunted Screen (1974). From Caligari to Hitler based its claims about the film largely on an unpublished typescript by Hans Janowitz called Caligari: The Story of a Famous Story, which gave Janowitz and Carl Mayer principal credit for the making of Caligari. Mike Budd wrote of Kracauer's book: "Perhaps no film or period has been so thoroughly understood through a particular interpretation as has Caligari, and Weimar cinema generally, through Kracauer's social-psychological approach". Prior to the publication of From Caligari to Hitler, few critics had derived any symbolic political meaning from the film, but Kracauer’s argument that it symbolized German obedience toward authority and a premonition of the rise of Adolf Hitler (see the Themes section for more) drastically changed attitudes about Caligari. Many of his interpretations of the film are still embraced, even by those who have strongly disagreed with his general premise, and even as certain claims Kracauer made have been disproven, such as his statement that the original script included no frame story. (See Writing for more.) Eisner's book placed Caligari into historical context by identifying how it influenced Expressionist features in other films of the 1920s.
Film historian David Robinson claimed Wiene, despite being the director of Caligari, is often given the least amount of credit for its production. He believes this is in part because Wiene died in 1938, closer to the release of the film than any other major collaborators, and was therefore unable to defend his involvement in the work while others took credit. In fact, Robinson argues Caligari ultimately hurt Wiene's reputation because his subsequent films did not match its success, so he is often wrongly considered "a one-film director who had a lucky fluke with Caligari".
Themes and interpretations
Authority and conformity
Caligari, like a number of Weimar films that followed it, thematizes brutal and irrational authority by making a violent and possibly insane authority figure its antagonist. Kracauer said Dr. Caligari was symbolic of the German war government and fatal tendencies inherent in the German system, saying the character "stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values". Likewise, John D. Barlow described Dr. Caligari as an example of the tyrannical power and authority that had long plagued Germany, while Cesare represents the "common man of unconditional obedience". Janowitz has claimed Cesare represents the common citizen who is conditioned to kill or be killed, just as soldiers are trained during their military service, and that Dr. Caligari is symbolic of the German government sending those soldiers off to die in the war. The control Dr. Caligari yields over the minds and actions of others results in chaos and both moral and social perversion. Cesare lacks any individuality and is simply a tool of his master; Barlow writes that he is so dependent on Caligari that he falls dead when he strays too far from the source of his sustenance, "like a machine that has run out of fuel".
In his influential book From Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer argues the Dr. Caligari character is symptomatic of a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant, which he calls the German "collective soul". Kracauer argues Dr. Caligari and Cesare are premonitions of Adolf Hitler and his rule over Germany, and that his control over the weak-willed, puppet-like somnambulist prefigures aspects of the mentality that allowed the Nazi Party to rise. He calls Dr. Caligari's use of hypnotism to impose his will foreshadowing of Hitler's "manipulation of the soul". Kracauer described the film as an example of Germany's obedience to authority and failure or unwillingness to rebel against deranged authority, and reflects a "general retreat" into a shell that occurred in post-war Germany. Cesare symbolizes those who have no mind of their own and must follow the paths of others; Kracauer wrote he foreshadows a German future in which "self-appointed Caligaris hypnotized innumerable Cesares into murder". Barlow rejects Kracauer's claims that the film glorifies authority "just because it has not made a preachy statement against it", and said the connection between Dr. Caligari and Hitler lies in the mood the film conveys, not an endorsement of such tyrant on the film's part.
Everyday reality in Caligari is dominated by tyrannical aspects. Authorities sit atop high perches above the people they deal with and hold offices out of sight at the end of long, forbidding stairways. Most of the film's characters are caricatures who fit neatly into prescribed social roles, such as the outraged citizens chasing a public enemy, the authoritarian police who are deferential to their superiors, the oft-harassed bureaucratic town clerk, and the asylum attendants who act like stereotypical "little men in white suits". Only Dr. Caligari and Cesare are atypical of social roles, instead serving as, in Barlow's words, "abstractions of social fears, the incarnations of demonic forces of a nightmarish world the bourgeoisie was afraid to acknowledge, where self-assertion is pushed to willful and arbitrary power over others". Kracauer wrote the film demonstrates a contrast between the rigid control, represented by such characters as Dr. Caligari and the town clerk, and chaos, represented by the crowds of people at the fair and the seemingly never-ending spinning of the merry-go-rounds. He said the film leaves no room for middle ground between these two extremes, and that viewers are forced to embrace either insanity or authoritarian rigidity, leaving little space for human freedom. Kracauer writes: "Caligari exposes the soul wavering between tyranny and chaos, and facing a desperate situation: any escape from tyranny seems to throw it into a state of utter confusion".
Dr. Caligari is not the only symbol of arrogant authority in the film. In fact, he is a victim of harsh authority himself during the scene with the dismissive town clerk, who brushes him off and ignores him to focus on his paperwork. Film historian Thomas Elsaesser argues that Dr. Caligari's murderous rampage through Cesare can be seen as a rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak in response to such experiences as these, even in spite of his own authoritarianism. The Expressionistic set design in this scene further amplifies the power of the official and the weakness of his supplicant; the clerk towers in an excessively high chair over the small and humiliated Dr. Caligari. The scene represents class and status differences, and conveys the psychological experience of being simultaneously outraged and powerless in the face of a petty bureaucracy. Another common visual motif is the use of stairways to illustrate the hierarchy of authority figures, such as the multiple stairs leading up to police headquarters, and three staircases ascending to Dr. Caligari in the asylum.
Francis expresses a resentment of all forms of authority, particularly during the end of the frame story, when he feels he has been institutionalized because of the madness of the authorities, not because there is anything wrong with him. Francis can be seen, at least within the main narrative, as a symbol of reason and enlightenment triumphing over the irrational tyrant and unmasking the absurdity of social authority. But Kracauer contended the frame story undermines that premise. He argues if not for the frame story, the tale of Francis's efforts against Dr. Caligari would have been a praiseworthy example of independence and rebellion against authority. However, with the addition of the frame story, which places the veracity of Francis's claims into question, Kracauer argues the film glorifies authority and turns a reactionary story into an authoritarian film: "The result of these modifications was to falsify the action and to ultimately reduce it to the ravings of a madman." Kracauer believed these changes were not necessarily intentional, but rather an "instinctive submission to the necessities of the screen" because commercial films had to "answer to mass desires". Fritz Lang disagreed with Kracaucer's argument, and instead believes the frame story makes the film's revolutionary inclinations more convincing, not less. David Robinson said, as time passed, filmgoers have been less inclined to interpret the film as a vindication of authority because modern audiences have grown more skeptical of authority in general, and are more inclined to believe Francis's story and interpret the asylum director as wrongly committing Francis to silence him.
Point of view and perception of reality
Another major theme of Caligari is, as Stephen Brockmann writes, "the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity, and hence the destabilization of the very notion of sanity itself". By the end of the film, viewers realize the story they have been watching has been told from the perspective of an insane narrator, and therefore they cannot accept anything they have seen as reliable truth. The film's unusual visual abstractions and other stylized elements serve to show the world as one experienced by a madman. Similarly, the film has been described as portraying the story as a nightmare and the frame story as the real world. John D. Barlow said the film exemplifies a common Expressionist theme that "the ultimate perception of reality will appear distorted and insane to the healthy and practical mind". The film serves as a reminder that any story told through a flashback subjectivizes the story from the perspective of the narrator. At the end of the film, the asylum director gives no indication that he means Francis ill will, and in fact he seems to truly care for his patients. But Francis nevertheless believes he is being persecuted, so in the story as told from his perspective, Dr. Caligari takes on the role of persecutor.
However, the Expressionistic visual elements of the film are present not only in the main narrative, but also in the epilogue and prologue scenes of the frame story, which are supposed to be an objective account of reality. For example, the frame story scenes still have trees with tentacle-like branches and a high, foreboding wall in the background. Strange leaf and line patterns are seen on the bench Francis sits upon, flame-like geometric designs can be seen on the walls, and his asylum cell has the same distorted shape as in the main narrative. If the primary story were strictly the delusions of a madman, the frame story would be completely devoid of those elements, but the fact they are present makes it unclear whether that perspective can be taken as reliable either. Instead, the film offers no true normal world to oppose to that of the twisted and nightmarish world as described by Francis. As a result, after the film's closing scene, it can be seen as ambiguous whether Francis or the asylum director is truly the insane one, or whether both are insane. Likewise, the final shot of the film, with an iris that fades to a close-up on the asylum director's face, further creates doubt over whether the character is actually sane and trustworthy. As Brockmann writes, "In the end, the film is not just about one unfortunate madman; it is about an entire world that is possibly out of balance". Mike Budd notes that, during the scene in which asylum doctors restrain Francis, his movements closely mimic those of Dr. Caligari from a similar scene during the main story. Budd says this suggests a "dream logic of repetition" that throws further confusion on which perspective is reality.
Duality is another common theme in Caligari. Dr. Caligari is portrayed in the main narrative as an insane tyrant, and in the frame story as a respected authority and director of a mental institution. As a result of this duality, the viewer cannot help but suspect a malevolent aspect of him at the conclusion of the film, even despite all evidence indicating he is a kind and caring man. Even within the main narrative alone, Dr. Caligari lives a double life: holding a respectable position as the asylum director, but becoming a hypnotist and murderer at night. Additionally, the character is actually a double of the "real" Caligari, an 18th-century mystic whom the film character becomes so obsessed with that he desires to penetrate his innermost secrets and "become Caligari". Francis also takes on a double life of sorts, serving as the heroic protagonist in the main narrative and a patient in a mental institution in the frame story. Anton Kaes described the story Francis tells as an act of transference with his psychiatrist, as well as a projection of his feelings that he is a victim under the spell of the all-powerful asylum director, just as Cesare is the hypnotized victim of Dr. Caligari. The Cesare character serves as both a persecutor and a victim, as he is both a murderer and the unwilling slave of an oppressive master.
Siegfried Kracauer said by coupling a fantasy in which Francis overthrows a tyrannical authority, with a reality in which authority triumphs over Francis, Caligari reflects a double aspect of German life, suggesting they reconsider their traditional belief in authority even as they embrace it. A contrast between levels of reality exists not only in the characterizations, but in the presentation of some of the scenes as well. This, as Barlow writes, "reveals a contrast between external calm and internal chaos". For example, flashback scenes when Francis reads Dr. Caligari's diary, in which the doctor is shown growing obsessed with learning hypnotic powers, take place as Dr. Caligari is sleeping peacefully in the present. Another example is the fair, which on the surface appears to represent fun and escapism, but reveals a lurking sense of chaos and disaster in the form of Dr. Caligari and Cesare. The visual elements of the film also convey a sense of duality, particularly in the contrasts between black and white. This is particularly prevalent in the sets, where black shadows are set against white walls, but also in other elements like the costumes and make-up. For instance, Dr. Caligari wears mostly black, but white streaks are present in his hair and on his gloves. Cesare's face is a ghostly white, but the darks of his eyes are heavily outlined in black. Likewise, Jane's white face contrasts with her deep, dark eyes.
Reflection on post-war Germany
Critics have suggested that Caligari highlights some of the neuroses prevalent in Germany and the Weimar Republic when the film was made, particularly in the shadow of World War I, at a time when extremism was rampant, reactionaries still controlled German institutions, and citizens feared the harm the Treaty of Versailles would have on the economy. Siegfried Kracauer wrote that the paranoia and fear portrayed in the film were signs of things to come in Germany, and that the film reflected a tendency in Germans to "retreat into themselves" and away from political engagement following the war. Vincent LoBrutto wrote that the film can be seen as a social or political analogy of "the moral and physical breakdown of Germany at the time, with a madman on the loose wreaking havoc on a distorted and off-balanced society, a metaphor for a country in chaos".
Anton Kaes, who called Caligari "an aggressive statement about war psychiatry, murder and deception", wrote that Alan's question to Cesare, "How long have I to live?" reflected the trauma German citizens experienced during the war, as that question was often on the minds of soldiers and of family members back home concerned about their loved ones in the military. Francis's despair after Alan's murder can likewise be compared to that of the many soldiers who survived the war but saw their friends die on the battlefield. Kaes noted other parallels between the film and war experiences, noting that Cesare attacked Alan at dawn, a common time for attacks during the war. Thomas Elsaesser called Caligari an "outstanding example of how "fantastic" representations in German films from the early 1920s seem to bear the imprint of pressures from external events, to which they refer only through the violence with which they disguise and disfigure them."
Sequels, remakes and musical works
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to produce sequels and remakes in the decades following Caligari's release. Robert Wiene bought the rights to Caligari from Universum Film AG in 1934 with the intention of filming a sound remake, which never materialized before Wiene's death in 1938. He intended to cast Jean Cocteau as Cesare, and a script, believed to be written by Wiene, indicated the Expressionist style would have been replaced with a French surrealist style.
In 1944, Erich Pommer and Hans Janowitz each separately attempted to obtain the legal rights to the film, with hopes of a Hollywood remake. Pommer attempted to argue he had a better claim to the rights because the primary value of the original film came not from the writing, but "in the revolutionary way the picture was produced". However, both Janowitz and Pommer ran into complications related to the invalidity of Nazi law in the United States, and uncertainty over the legal rights of sound and silent films. Janowitz wrote a treatment for a remake, and in January 1945 was offered a minimum guarantee of $16,000 against a five-percent royalty for his rights to the original film for a sequel to be directed by Fritz Lang, but the project never came to fruition. Later, Janowitz planned a sequel called Caligari II, and unsuccessfully attempted to sell the property to a Hollywood producer for $30,000.
Around 1947, Hollywood agent Paul Kohner and German filmmaker Ernst Matray also planned a Caligari sequel; Matray and his wife Maria Solveg wrote a screenplay called The Return of Caligari. That script would have reimagined Dr. Caligari as a former Nazi officer and war criminal, but the film was never produced.
In 1960, independent Hollywood producer Robert Lippert acquired the rights to Caligari from Matray and Universum Film AG for $50,000, and produced a film called The Cabinet of Caligari, which was released in 1962. Screenwriter Robert Bloch did not intend to write a Caligari remake, and in fact the title was forced upon his untitled screenplay by director Roger Kay. The film had few similarities to the original Caligari except for its title and a plot twist at the end, in which it is revealed the story was simply the delusion of the protagonist, who believed she was being held captive by a character named Caligari. Instead, he was her psychiatrist, and he cures her at the end of the film.
A quasi-sequel, called Dr. Caligari, was released in 1989, directed by Stephen Sayadian and starring Madeleine Reynal as the granddaughter of the original Dr. Caligari, now running an asylum and performing bizarre hormonal experiments on its patients. The sex-driven story ultimately had little in common with the original film.
In 1992, theatre director Peter Sellars released his only feature film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, an experimental film loosely based on Caligari. However, the storyline was created as the film was being made, so it has few similarities with the original film. The film was screened only at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and never theatrically released.
An independent film remake of Caligari edited, written and directed by David Lee Fisher was released in 2005, in which new actors were placed in front of the actual backdrops from the original film. The actors performed in front of a green screen, then their performances were superimposed in front of matte shots based on the original sets. Doug Jones played the role of Cesare.
In 2014 the movie was released in a 4K resolution restoration. The premiere of this version in the Netherlands was in April 2016 during the Imagine Film Festival accompanied with a live soundtrack, composed and performed by the Dutch psychedelic band Monomyth.
In 1981, Bill Nelson was asked by the Yorkshire Actors Company to create a soundtrack for a stage adaptation of the film. That music was later recorded for his 1982 album Das Kabinet (The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari).
Numerous musicians have composed new scores to accompany the film. The Club Foot Orchestra premiered a score penned by ensemble founder and artistic director Richard Marriott in 1987. In 2000, the Israeli Electronica group TaaPet made several live performances of their soundtrack for the film around Israel. Bertelsmann/BMG commissioned Timothy Brock to adapt his 1996 score for string orchestra for the 2014 restoration; Brock conducted the premiere in Brussels on September 15, 2014. In 2012, the Chatterbox Audio Theatre recorded a live soundtrack, including dialogue, sound effects and music for Caligari, which was released on YouTube on October 30, 2013.
Deepan Sivaraman, noted scenographer and director from India, adapted the film into an hour-long mixed-media piece with the Performance Studies students at Ambedkar University Delhi as part of a course entitled "Space and Spectatorship." The performance took place in a run-down warehouse on the university campus and employed multimedia projection to create visual impact. The show premiered in February 2015 in Delhi.
2016 saw the production of another operatic version of Dr. Caligari composed by Karen MacIver for Scottish Opera's Connect Company with a libretto provided by Allan Dunn. This opera has the action set in Glasgow 1898. The first performances under the direction of Julie Brown took place on the 9th and 10 April 2016 in Glasgow's Woodside Halls featured the Scottish Opera Connect Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Chris Gray. Alumni from Scottish Opera's Emerging Artists Programme - Andrew McTaggart (Baritone) and Sarah Power (Soprano) - were cast as Dr. Caligari/Dr. Gallacher and Jane respectively alongside Daniel Keating Roberts (Counter-tenor) as Cesare and Glen Cunningham (Tenor) as Francis with members of the Chorus providing additional roles.
2016 saw also the publishing of a DVD by Cineteca di Bologna with 2 new soundtracks by Edison Studio (in surround sound 5.1) and Timothy Brock (for Brussels Philarmonic Orchestra) on a new restored version of Caligari movie. The first live performance of the soundtrack by Edison Studio had taken place at the International Computer Music Conference 2003, Singapore on October 2nd 2003.
From 1992 to 1994, a 3-issue comic book mini-series entitled Caligari 2050 written by Rafael Nieves and illustrated by Ken Holewczynski was published by Caliber Entertainment. In this futuristic take on the classic film, a mysterious somnambulist killer named Caesar is stalking and killing one by one the corrupt members of a power cabal in New City, a so-called "perfect" city of the future, who have created population mind control. This mini-series was later released complete in graphic-novel format as Caligari 2050: Another Sleepless Night.
In 1998, an audio adaptation of the film written and directed by Yuri Rasovsky was released by Dove Audio on audio cassette. With a cast including John de Lancie as "Franz"/"Francis", Tony Jay as Caligari, Kaitlin Hopkins as "Anna"/"Jane" and Robertson Dean as "Karl"/"Alan", this dramatization won the Independent Publishers Award for Best Direct-to-Audio Production in 1998. An audio CD of this production was released by Blackstone Audio in 2013.
In 2008, BBC Radio 3 broadcast an audio adaptation by Amanda Dalton entitled Caligari, starring Tom Ferguson as "Franzis", Luke Treadaway as "Allan", Sarah McDonald Hughes as "Jane", countertenor Robin Blaze as "Cesare" and Terence Mann as "The Town Clerk" (doubling as the voice of "The Director" of the mental asylum, Caligari being an entirely silent character in this production). While the program itself is not currently available, the script may be downloaded from the BBC website at www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scripts/caligari.
In 2015 Delhi based theatre director and scenographer Deepan Sivaraman directed a play inspired by the film by the same name . The play has been performed by Performance Studies Collective group from Delhi, is a contemporary take on the 1920 film, emerging out of spatial experimentation with a focus on objects, some found and others made. The play was later premiered at the Bhrat Rang Mahotsav in 2016 which later went on to win the META award in the same year . South Indian premiere was in 2017 at the International Theater Festival of Kerala . It is a multimedia performance in which the scenography and dramaturgy emerge together in an attempt to navigate through the run-down warehouse space where the production has been staged.
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