The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Suffering creates art?

"Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock" -Harry Lime, The Third Man
In the climate of 1919, the aftermath of World War I weighed heavy on the globe's conscious, no where more so than Germany where Kaiser Wilhelm's power trip had cost them everything. Many lives had been lost, the economy was now a disaster and the social climate of the country was at it's lowest point in decades as they had felt cheated by their government into getting involved in a war that should never have taken place. Remarkably despite all this (or maybe because of this) it would be German cinema that would prove to be the most creative, exciting and artistic for many years to come, leaving the 'safe style' of the American formula behind. Just one year after 'the war to end all wars' was finally over, a script written by first time writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz immediately caught the attention of the German film industry. Supposedly based around a notorious murder in Hamburg where Mayer witnessed a strange figure at the scene of a young girl's murder then again spotted the same guy lurking at her funeral, the script was one big metaphor for the opposing views of society and the government and was outstandingly for the climate of the time, a script that ridiculed dictatorship. So Meyer and Janowtiz had a script they were proud of but trying to find a director was tricky. They first offered the project to an up and coming ambitious young film-maker by the name of Fritz Lang who would go on to create masterpieces such as M and Metropolis but for whatever reason he turned it down. Robert Weine, a lot more experienced director than Lang would eventually be given the task of directing the picture which is now believed by many to be the first example of a horror film in the history of cinema. Ironically for Weine, it would be Lang's suggestion of an expressionistic backdrop for the setting which would become the most memorable feature of the film. Weine searched out for the three of the most talented expressionistic artists in Germany as Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig were hired to create as surreal and imaginative backdrop as possible with just paint and paper sets.


As well as being cost effective, this also proved to be a smart move and surely improved Mayer and Janowitz's original script by ten fold, by adding some visual substance and a more psychological edge to it. Another significant addition was from the director Robert Weine (who IMO, is too often unfairly left out of the discussion when this film is praised) who came up with the idea of the opening and closing scenes which book-end the film, although the question of whether the ending for an intelligent audience is really needed must surely be asked? Do the sets and the imagery not suggest this enough. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is based around an eccentric hypnotist named Dr. Caligari (played by the awesomely terrifying Werner Krauss) and his faithful symbolist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who run an attraction at the town carnival where Cesare will remarkably wake from his eternal sleep and answer any question that is asked of him. When Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) asks when he will die, Cesare tells him it will be tomorrow at dawn and wouldn't you know it, that's just what happened. Maybe he should have asked for the lottery numbers instead. The question of 'when will I die' is an extremely interesting one given the climate of the time. You have to remember that this film came just after the war where young and old men were bullet fodder on the battlefield and surely asking themselves this question on a daily basis. Seeing their friends shot and killed around them they must have been terrified that they would soon join them as a body to be trampled on in No Man's Land. This question must have surely been on the minds of those left after the war, both suffering psychically and mentality along with those in German society who were lost at who to continue their lives.


Obviously, an investigation into Caligari then occurs as this 'carnival act' predicted exactly the moment when an innocent man would die and we find out this isn't the first time a mysterious death has taken place in this town. The dead man's friends Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his girlfriend Jane (Lil Dagover) act like detectives until they witness that Caligari's symbolist Cesare is actually the one carrying out the murders. Under the control of Caligari, he wonders through the night murdering victims at his desire until he meets Jane and he is overcome by her beauty. In a stunning sequence, he is seen walking methodically clutching to the walls as he nears the his pray but he is unable to go through with the killing. Instead, he kidnaps her and runs off through the surreal expressionistic sets, until the whole experience becomes too much for him and he falls to his death. In soon becomes apparent that Caligari is really the man pulling the strings and that Cesare had been hypnotised into all these killings until beauty awakened him again but in truth horror fashion, it also led to his downfall.


Francis finds out that Caligari is the head of an insane asylum who is obsessed with the story of a previous Caligari who murdered people with this same carnival act that he now uses. However, in a breathtaking move for a film so early in the genre and a plot device which would be forever copied in various forms, the twist comes turns out that the whole morbid tale of the film is Francis' fantasy imagination and we see Caligari as his psychological doctor who now claims he is able to cure Francis of his insanity. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a haunting tale that shows the troubled imagination and social anxiety that was prevalent in a suffering country, at a time of unspeakable horror. It's fitting the movie is a silent one. The themes of being hypnotised and 'under a spell' links with the German attitude to their government and the worrying fate that is brought upon Alan who wishes to know when he will die mirrors the worry that Germany would head towards another World War. The imagantive sets show the deep psychological nightmare of Germany who couldn't quite believe the horrors they had been through in the previous years. Like the great speech from Orson Welles in The Third Man, who said that times of war and suffering bring out the most creative and artistic periods in history, Caligari is a testament to the human spirit and a way of how expression through film was a way of venting your social state. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the precursor to the great Universal horror movies of the 30's and influenced the whole genre of film noir. You can see elements of German Expressionism in every single one of Tim Burton's movies, must explicitly in the character of Edward Scissorhands (a double for Cesare), The Penguin (a double for Caligari) and the whole of Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood (the painted sets). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari shows how the medium of cinema even as early as 1919 was used as a way for man to express themselves visually and to let out their dark emotions for the whole world to see. In 1919, cinema made the leap from being just a medium of static motions, to being fully a life and a tool like pen and paper had been for thousands of years, to let out our emotions.

rating: 5

Being what is widely regarded as the first horror film in the history of cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a movie that was made years before it's time. It has a dream like quality to it and even if you disregard all the inventiveness of the film, you are still left with a perfect horror tale that showcases the confused and desperate state of a German country that was in deep suffering.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.