The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Kabinett Des Dr Caligari) 1920

Director: Robert Wiene

"You Will Become Caligari!"

The Devil's Manor proudly presents a horror classic and one of the best-known films of the silent era. When darkness falls on the town of Holstenwall and the frantic motion of the Carnival grows still, the sleeper walks, bringing death's cold touch at the bidding of his master Caligari... 

The fair comes to Holstenwall. The hypnotist Dr Caligari visits the town clerk, seeking a permit to allow him to exhibit his attraction: Cesare, a somnambulist with oracular abilities. The clerk offends Caligari with his brusque manner ... and is found stabbed to death in his room the very next morning...

The following evening, two students, Francis and Alan, visit the fair. Both are in love with a girl named Jane, though they agree to remain friends whichever one of them she ultimately chooses. They join the crowd in Caligari's tent, where Alan asks Cesare to predict how long he will live. Cesare's answer is chillingly brief; "Until dawn." That night, Alan is murdered in his bed by an unknown assailant. A possible culprit is arrested, though Francis suspects Caligari, and enlists Jane's father to help investigate. 

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) attacks Jane
(Lil Dagover)
Later, while Francis is spying on Caligari's quarters, Cesare breaks into Jane's bedroom. They struggle, and she collapses in a faint. Unable or unwilling to kill her, he instead carries her off across the jagged rooftops. Chased by a mob, he is forced to abandon her, and escapes to the fields outside the town where he dies of exhaustion. Francis now knows that Caligari - who had spent all night watching over a decoy dummy of Cesare - is the true culprit. Caligari escapes, but Francis tracks him to a nearby insane asylum and is horrified to discover that he is not an inmate but the asylum's head.

The doctor's obsession with the legend of an 18th-century mystic named Caligari and his murderous sleepwalker led him to assume the man's identity, swearing, "I will become Caligari!" The luckless Cesare, a catatonic patient, is forced to kill at his bidding. When Cesare's body is discovered, Francis has him brought to the asylum. The sight of his lifeless servant drives Caligari is into a violent rage: clearly insane, he is wrestled into a strait-jacket and locked away in one of his own cells.

Part 1: "Spirits surround us on every side..."
Caligari brought a new kind of nightmare to the cinema screen. Its co-author, Hans Janowitz, described his part in its creation as "the father who planted the seed", and that of his partner Carl Mayer as "the mother who conceived and ripened it". It was a nightmare grown to maturity through a terrible war which had seen millions of young men subjected to terrible atrocities, and which had been conceived by a vile sex crime committed in the dark shadows of a carnival.

Caligari (Werner Krauss) enlists his protege
1913: Janowitz, a young Prague-born poet, had been wandering through a fair on Hamburg's Reeperbahn in search of a pretty girl who had caught his eye. Following the sound of laughter to a nearby park, he saw a respectable-looking middle-aged bourgeois disappearing into the undergrowth ... and the next day, read of a young girl raped and murdered on that very spot. He attended the girl's funeral a few days later and again caught a glimpse of the mysterious middle-aged man. Janowitz was convinced he had seen the killer and was haunted by thoughts of countless murderers roaming the city streets undetected...

Janowitz's subsequent wartime experiences did little to improve his opinion of humanity. He left the infantry a committed pacifist with a fierce hatred of authority. He settled in Berlin and befriended an eccentric Austrian Jew named Carl Mayer. Mayer's father had committed suicide when he was only sixteen, and since then the young Carl had been scraping a living as an artist and theatrical bit player. During the war, Mayer had suffered humiliating mental examinations by a high-ranking military psychiatrist and, like Janowitz, returned to civilian life an embittered man, deeply distrustful of those in power.

The two men shared a love of cinema, particularly the fantastic films of Paul Wegener, and in it recognised a way to express their revolutionary ideas. Janowitz wrote that film "might lend itself to powerful poetic revelations", but those revelations failed to find expression until Mayer took them back to the carnival. On the Kantstrasse they saw a sideshow called "Man Or Machine" featuring a strongman who acted as if in a kind of hypnotic trance. As Janowitz later recalled, “he accompanied his feats with utterances which affected the spellbound spectators as pregnant forebodings”.

This was all the two men needed. Their story was concocted that very night, and a manuscript was completed in six weeks. A volume of Stendahl's letters provided the final missing piece: a Milanese army officer who gave their protagonist a name. Caligari.

Part 2:"Now I shall unravel the psychiatric secrets of this Caligari!"
Mayer and Janowitz couldn't believe their luck when noted producer Erich Pommer agreed to purchase their debut screenplay for Decla-Bioscop. According to film historian Carlos Clarens, the proud parents handed over their baby for the equivalent of only $200. Pommer saw artistic potential -- and therefore, overseas sales -- in the "unusual, if not subversive" script, but its authors were outraged at the eventual treatment is was to receive.

Pommer's first choice for director, Fritz Lang, was busy with his crime serial The Spiders at the time, but he recommended Robert Wiene as a replacement. A cast was assembled: Werner Krauss, under contract to Decla, was Caligari, and his old colleague from the Deusches Theatre Conrad Veidt wore the black leotard of his sleepwalking servant Cesare. Mayer's girlfriend Gilda Langer was suggested for the role which ultimately went to Lil Dagover, again at Lang's suggestion. Frederich Feher took the lead as Francis; after Robert Wiene's death, he also attempted to take the credit for most of the film's direction.

The authors' initial suggestion of Czech painter Alfred Kubin as designer was overruled by Pommer, who opted for three men from the art group Der Sturm. Hermann Warm and Walter Rohrig created the crazily distorted sets and Walter Riemann the costumes, an arrangement that appealed to Pommer for economic as well as aesthetic reasons. Painted light and shadow would save a lot of electricity, after all.

During filming, a change in the script suggested by either Wiene or Lang (depending who you believe) completely undermined the subversive, anti-authoritarian tone of the story summarised above. A prologue and epilogue were added which revealed the entire narrative as the paranoid delusion of Francis, who is in reality a patient of Werner Krauss' kindly asylum director. As critic Siegfried Kracauer commented, "A revolutionary film was thus turned into a conformist one - following the much-used pattern of declaring some normal but troublesome individual insane and sending him to a lunatic asylum."

Mayer and Janowitz were outraged. Four years of wartime madness had informed their cautionary tale of unrestrained authority, which now had been gelded with an ending that timidly restored the status quo. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, the authors are at least partly vindicated. We can see that the reassuring explanation isn't all that reassuring; 'Normality' is represented by the ravings of the insane, played out before the same distorted backdrops as the madman's tale we have just watched. 

Of the many individuals who contributed to the making of Caligari, posterity has come to recognise Mayer and Janowitz as the ones who made it such a unique experience. The interest generated by their creation in the years following it's release have ensured that their voices have at last been heard, and their message has been kept alive for each successive generation that experiences their twisted carnival nightmare.

Part 3: "In the grip of an obsession"
Pre-release publicity poster
Caligari's notoriety grew gradually following its Berlin opening in February 1920. The critics were impressed, and the film became an immediate hit, thanks to a clever ad campaign (left) by Pommer which insisted "You will become Caligari!" Unfortunately, the film's artistic intentions and antiwar sentiments were mostly lost on a public which assumed that the distorted visuals represented the world seen through a madman's eyes.

The campaign picked up steam. The French lifted the wartime ban on German films to allow Caligari to be screened, and gushing critics coined the word 'Caligarisme' to describe the film's singular style when it opened in Paris. British distributors described a story told "in somewhat the same manner in which an artist transfers his own emotions upon the canvas - in vivid and unusual strokes", adding: " will immediately feel terror in the movements of that floating grotesque".

But it was when Caligari reached New York in April 1921 that its reputation was cemented. US critics weary of insipid home-grown efforts enthused that "the artist has slipped into this crude phantasmagoria [the cinema] and begun to create". Critic Kenneth MacGowan called it "the most extraordinary production yet seen". Many commentators mistakenly labelled the film as 'cubist', and the film was not universally praised. Variety sniffed: "It may well catch the popular fancy, but it is morbid. Continental creations usually are." Either way, it made a strong impression on the public.

The Los Angeles premiere in May was disrupted by rioting protesters, mostly war veterans incensed that US dollars were being fed into the pockets of German film producers. Some sections of the audience hooted derisively at screenings, unimpressed by the film's "modern art" trappings and no doubt fired up by an anti-German smear campaign generated by William Randolph Hearst's newspapers. Caligari appeared in countless magazine articles, and even works of fiction. According to Carlos Clarens, "it remained the most talked-about film of the twenties until the advent of Battleship Potemkin".

Original German one-sheet poster
Rightly revered nowadays as a classic, its expected influence on the course of film making never materialised. There were a few imitations, including Weine's follow-up Genuine, but Caligari was pretty much an artistic dead end. Its more immediate effect was to make a successful break away from realism, in the process opening the doors for the German expressionist movement.

The Schauerfilme (shudder film) genre explored by Paul Wegener and others in the last decade would flourish after Caligari;   Wegener himself would be inspired to return to The Golem, Hans Janowitz wrote FW Murnau's Jekyll and Hyde adaptation Der Januskopf (1920), and studios across Europe began to see the viability of films whose main purpose was to run a shudder down an audience's spine. But as nightmares go, Caligari remains unique even after all these years.

(Background information taken from 'From Caligari To Hitler - A Psychological History of the German Film' by Siegfried Kracauer and 'The Monster Show' by David J Skal.)

End Credits:
Werner Krauss (Dr Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Freidrich Feher (Francis), Lil Dagover (Jane Olsen), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Alan), Rudolf Lettinger (Dr Olsen), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (A Criminal), Hans Lanser-Rudolf (Old Man), Henri Peters-Arnolds (Young Doctor), Ludwig Rex (Murderer), Elsa Wagner (Landlady).
Screenplay: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, Producer: Erich Pommer, Rudolf Meinert, Cinematography: Willy Hameister, Production design: Walter Riemann (Costumes), Hermann Warm and Walter Rohrig (Set Design)Assistant Director: Rochus Gleise 
Decla-Film, Berlin
Running Time 72 mins.

Recommended is the Image Entertainment edition with soundtrack by Timothy Brock.

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