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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Flogging Expressionism in the Movies


Production still from the Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1919 | Image courtesy: British Film Institute, Transit Films GmbH


Production still from the Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1919 | Image courtesy: British Film Institute, Transit Films GmbH


Production still from Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire 1920 | Image courtesy: British Film Institute, Transit Films GmbH


Production still from The Golem 1920 | Image courtesy: British Film Institute, Transit Films GmbH


Production still from Metropolis | Image courtesy: British Film Institute, Transit Films GmbH


Production still from Nosferatu 1922 | Image courtesy: British Film Institute, Transit Films GmbH

Lecture presented in conjunction with Out of the Shadows: German Expressionism and Beyond at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, by Dr Russell Merritt, Adjunct Professor in the Film Studies Program at University of California (Berkeley), on Saturday November 8 2008.

Russell Merritt collaborated with the Australian Cinémathèque to curate Out of the Shadows: German Expressionism and Beyond, a major retrospective season of films from the silent period in Weimar Germany and afterwards which experiment with design, lighting and shadow in an expressionist vein. His talk explored the landmark film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919).
‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: Flogging Expressionism in the Movies’ was followed by a screening of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with live piano accompaniment by Mauro Colombis.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Flogging Expressionism in the Movies

Expressionism is famous as the first avant-garde art movement introduced to mass audiences through the movies, and Caligari is the film that opened the gates. It was made in the fall of 1919, produced on a modest budget at the tiny Lixi studio just outside Berlin, and from the beginning it became a site of a cultural and political battleground.

Nor was this accidental. Caligari had always been meant as a prestige item, designed as an alternative to Hollywood productions that were threatening to suffocate Germany's film industry. It was originally booked into the largest movie palaces in Europe and the US where it was accompanied by large orchestras. Its two leads - Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss - were well-known veterans of Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater.  But most curious of all, the highest paid members of the crew were not its stars, nor its director, nor its producer - but its art directors. Those designers - Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig - came from two of the best-known expressionist collectives, Der Sturm and Die Brucke and were steeped in cubist expressionist styles of their contemporaries.

Painters getting paid more than movie stars! How to explain it? Especially strange because these were not iconic expressionists – like Feininger, Max Ernst, or Kirchner. They weren’t even particularly well-known. What was famous, especially within the borders of Germany, was the brand. And this, I think, is the important starting point. I’ve called Expressionism avant-garde, but that is only half true. Within Germany, Expressionism had become part of the mainstream. By February 1920, when Caligari was released, Expressionism had even been absorbed into advertizing, and had become a design element in everything from wrapping paper and posters to movie theater architecture and roller coaster rides in Berlin's great amusement park. What Caligari’s producers were paying for was a distinctive German brand. 

And that has become one of the stigmas attached to Caligari, particularly among art historians who focus on Expressionism in its formative years, in the 1890s. As a mass entertainment decked out in expressionist design, the film appears suspiciously commercial, madly eclectic. Further, given that Expressionism had become so conservative as it became so popular, didn’t the style undermine the film's political stance? Isn’t the film too schizophrenic – too at odds with itself – to be taken seriously as art? These are by now the conventional critiques of the film. But what I’d like to do today is consider an alternative quesiton: mainly, whether or not Caligari helped open up a new way of seeing Expressionism.

I mentioned that Expressionism was the first avant-garde art movement popularized through the movies. I'd like to elaborate on that. From 1920 onward, Dr. Caligari, Dracula, Dr.Mabuse and their descendents, all working in an expressionist idiom, were making German cinema world famous. Although individual avant-garde films had been released from other countries before Caligari, Weimar Germany could claim the first studio system that systematically encouraged avant-garde painters, writers, and stage directors to work through films. Which in turn meant that filmmakers, more than painters or poets, introduced Expressionism to international critics, mainly through set designs, innovative acting styles, and expressionist staging devices. As John Willet has argued, audiences that had never heard of Lyonel Feininger, Ernst Kirchner, or Erich Heckel were introduced to principles of expressionist decor and landscape through Caligari and its successors. Although Leopold Jessner's expressionist sets, the so-called Jessnerstreppe themselves exerted little impact on '20s stage design outside Germany, Jessner's monumental style of  staging found a large audience in Fritz Lang's Siegfried. Styles of film Expressionism underwent drastic changes throughout its short heyday, but they never lost its ties with expressionist painting and drawing. The tortured distortions represented here in Oskar Kokoshka's theater poster were translated almost unfiltered in scenes such as this from Metropolis.

One look at the French, American, and British reviews of Caligari reveals how unfamiliar Expressionism was outside the confines of Germany and Austria, even as late as 1921. Although Caligari's sets immediately became the best-known and most often described aspect of the film, few critics knew what to call them. In American journals, they were usually called cubist, futurist, or [in the case of Carl Sandburg when he reviewed the film for the Chicago Daily News] post-impressionist. In France, they were considered examples of Art Nouveau, adapted from the Ballets Russes. Distributors and exhibitors, like daily newspaper reviewers, gave up altogether and called the film simply a novelty, or a 'spook film' to use the phrase favored by the Americans. Carl Sandberg thought Caligari's title should be changed to "Who's Loony Now?"

This link between Expressionism and horror quickly eclipsed the associations between Expressionism and the avant garde. It was Caligari’s distinctive creepiness that  became its most famous mark, particularly in the United States and in England where its weirdness became a point of departure for both the critics and advertizers. I can't say I've ever seen ads for a film quite like this. When Sam Goldwyn's company distributed the film in the United States, the trade ads included the warning: “BEWARE. This film is not suitable for audiences composed of women and children who seek recreation. It is morbidly unhealthy and leaves a bad impression on timorous natures." A theater in St. Louis was even more explicit: "We do not recommend this picture to nervous women or to anyone who may be easily frightened."

As a publicity stunt, Caligari's promoters in the little town of Pottstown PA made up red paper notes reading "Revenge - Cesare," attached them to bread knives and stuck them in the doors of a half-dozen of the town's leaders. The theater manager was arrested of course - that was the point - but pleaded he was under the spell of a sinister force when he etc.

While we're on the subject of American distribution, I might add that the film had a particularly colorful reception in California.

Frequently we ask about the "Function" of the decor in a film. One function of Caligari's expressionist setting was to label it unmistakably German. Goldwyn had tried to pass Caligari off simply as "Foreign" or "European" the same way that Paramount had successfully marketed Lubitsch's Passion the year before. But absolutely no one was fooled. And in California, this became a particular problem. No major theater chain would touch Caligari on the west coast, so in Los Angeles it opened in a small independent theater called Miller's where it lasted exactly one day. The American Legion, Actors' Equity, and the Directors Guild of America [Motion Picture Directors' Assn], egged on by the Hearst press, picketed the film and Caligari was immediately taken out of the theater. This triggered an unofficial ban on all foreign films across the west coast that lasted for four months. It only ended when Caligari surfaced again in San Francisco. The irony was that it was brought in as a last-minute substitute for the one film even more ferociously denounced than Caligari, Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation.

Politics aside, the film was fiercely attacked from two perspectives. The first came from the art mandarins who found the sets derivative and pretentious. This was Ezra Pound's complaint when he called the film 'impertinent.'  "Caligari cribbed its visual effects with craven impertinences, and then flashed up a notice, 'This film isn't cubism; it represents the ravings et cetera. Precisely, ravings the inventors couldn't have thought of without the anterior work of new artists."

The second, more pervasive argument against the film considered the sets incongruous and retrogressive, fighting film's natural affinity for photographic realism. Novelist Blaise Cendrars put it most succinctly: "Real characters in an unreal setting (nonsense)” CINEA 6/2/21, but Sergei Eisenstein was juicier: "this barbaric carnival of the destruction of healthy human infancy of our art, this common grave for normal cinema origins, this combination of silent hysteria, daubed flats, painted faces, and unnatural broken gestures...Expressionism...mystical, decadent, dismal.”

But the underlying assumption in both approaches was that the expressionist sets were being imposed on a rather conventional even dated narrative, stitched together from German detective films and popular Joe May serials. 

The story is easily summarized. On the outskirts of a German village, an itinerant showman named Caligari joins a carnival with his strange mind-reading act. He has brought with him a somnambulist named Cesare whom he puts on display in an upright coffin. At Caligari’s direction, Cesare will open his eyes and, in response to questions, will predict the future. He is particularly good at predicting the deaths of his questioners, and soon the village is overrun by a series of unexplained murders.

Caligari himself is revealed as the murderer, using Cesare as his tool. The mad showman is chased down to an insane asylum, where we discover that, far from being an escaped inmate, he is the director of the asylum. Caligari is a famous psychiatrist who has gone berserk – imagining himself the reincarnation of a famous mystic named Caligari. Enthralled with Caligari’s experiments, he has been trying to recreate them an inmate.

What famously complicates the tale is its frame. The entire story is being told by a young man who is not who he seems. And by the end of film we are no longer certain who is crazy and who is not.

The frame story in particular was attacked as a cliché that undermined a potentially daring attack on authority by turning everything into a madman's fantasy.

More recent studies, however, notably those by Richard Murphy, Paul Coates, and Catherine Clérmont, have stressed the extreme oddity of the story, its surprising quirkiness and complex Freudian overtones. For starters, one way Caligari distinguished itself from other expressionist films is that it's the only such film to link its preoccupation with the occult to psychoanalysis. Almost every German expressionist film concerns itself with the uncanny, ranging from Nosferatu, and Der Golem to Dr. Mabuse, the criminal mastermind who works through occult hypnotic powers, and Metropolis.

But Caligari's the only one to see occult, demonic aspects in psychiatry. And that combination has proven irresistible to Lacanian critics. Far from banal, Caligari's narrative has been perceived as a deconstructionist's delight, filled with peculiar doublings, repetitions, and character splits. It's a film that seems as schizophrenic as any of its characters, marked by a kind of decenteredness where it's impossible to distinguish insiders from outsiders, interiors from exteriors, masters from underlings. If the film takes on the character of a dream, it's not just because the frame story tells us it's all been a madman's fantasy. The main narrative itself is constantly hopping back and forth between rational, cause-effect sequences to fantastical dream-like events. 

Consider the sequence in which the heroine, Jane, first encounters Caligari and Cesare. Jane, you should know, is the narrator Francis’ sweetheart. She is looking for her father, thinking he has gone to the fair.

Lacking any rational answers, we tend to fall back on allegorical ones. We note the fairy tale aspect: Bluebeard: the heroine who goes into a forbidden place. Or the Freudian aspect in which characters grow intricately intertwined: Caligari & Jane; Cesare & Jane; Caligari & Cesare.
Caligari is a film about primary fantasies (frequently taking place at characters' bedsides) such as murder, seduction, voyeurism, and incarceration that never resolve themselves into stable configurations.

Rather than see connections with Caligari's more conventional film predecessors, non-expressionist horror films like The Student Of Prague or Eyes Of The Mummy, new critics led by Richard Murphy in his seminal seminal essay, “Carnival Desire and the Sideshow of Fantasy,” link Caligari with Freud's study of "The Uncanny," and demonic tales of ego-splitting like E.T.A. Hoffman's "Der Sandmann" or Kafka's "Das Urteil” [“The Judgment”].

In this critical atmosphere, suddenly the expressionist design has become extremely interesting. Everywhere it seems to reinforce the de-centeredness of the story. So for instance, the sets continually leave us wondering where we are - in the present or in the past, indoors or outdoors. Is this space leading to the town clerk a corridor are alleyway? Or, the most intriguing space of all, the court yard of the insane asylum.

Or consider the spaces that Cesare passes through as he carries Jane over the rooftop and through a trench before being overtaken by his pursuers. 

It's tempting to compare these compositions with Carl Crodel's woodcut Bend In The Road (drawn the same year as Caligari, by the way), which also works with a simple line to mark a path, bisecting an empty town. Even closer: Ludwig Sievert’s Penthesilea (1920). But similarities only heighten the differences. It's not just that the Caligari set seems so much bleaker, it is also much less stable. Notice how the white line seems to mark a path, but by the time your eye has traveled to the top of the picture, the path has become the top of a building with windows and chimneys.

Similarly, the shot of Cesare on the bridge, almost an answer to the rooftop shot, works with another inversion. The arch that lifts over transposes into a walled trench, in the same way that the black trees on the left seem to reverse themselves and creep over the wall in white shadows.

Note too, how illumination becomes separated from its light source. The painted street lamp on the left is of course disconnected with the actual source of illumination. But notice that it's also unconnected to the painted light on the path. 

Playing tricks with lamps and lights is in fact one of the most popular forms of stylizations in Caligari. Here, for instance, in Alan's bedroom is another complicated combination of illusory, metaphorical, and actual light sources. The starburst pattern on the floor and the triangular white on the right are the painted light created by the painted lamp on the left, but the streak of light directly under the painted lamp is created by an actual off-camera flood lamp.

Alan, however, is utterly oblivious to both sources of light, hypnotized instead by the off-camera moonlight that pours down on his sensitive face and seems to leave him literally moonstruck. But if the sky and the skyline are painted, the light that gives his hairline and profile that soft halo effect is coming from an actual spotlight. In Hollywood, it was called a hair light, or an angel light.         

But it gets even trickier. If you conclude that the scene is actually illuminated by studio light – that is, artificial light - you need to look harder. The dominant light in this moonlight scene is not electrical; it's provided by sunlight and diffusers. Like much of the rest of the film, Alan's bedroom was filmed in a so-called greenhouse studio with glass roofs and walls. Moonlight, inotherwords, is being provided by sunlight. The idea that this is an interior space lit with real and fake artificial illumination is itself an illusion.

By now, I hope, you perceive how limited the notion is that the expressionist sets represent simply a madman's point of view or that they simply  project characters in states of high anxiety. True, occasionally the sets do seem to function that way, as here in the prisoner's cell, or in a slide shown earlier where an attendant shows Francis to Caligari's office, and the spidery tentacles seem poisonous extensions of the investigators. Or here, where Francis watches as the cell door closes on Caligari in a strait-jacket and the tentacles on the door seem to emanate from Caligari's nemesis. 

But there's too much in the film that's inconsistent with the idea of Expressionism as the manifestation of Francis' deranged mind. Most obviously - the point that virtually every commentator who writes on the film seems to discover - the expressionist decor continues uninterrupted after we come out of Francis' story and into the asylum.

We get farther, I think, if we see the sets, costumes, and acting style as a projection of the instability of the narrative itself. The great achievement of the decor, in my judgment, is that it provides coherence and control for a particularly unruly, quirky, set of tales grounded in displacements, cover-ups, crises of perception.

We can start with the title itself, which contains a secret of its own. It is called Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari, where Cabinet most obviously refers to a room or chamber, a special room in a museum or in this case a fairground that houses a collection or attraction of this kind.

But Cabinet has other meanings that the filmmakers were careful to weave into their title, but which has inadvertently been lost through a strange case of mis-translation. Because Caligari is a German film, most commentators have instinctively spelled "Cabinet" with a K and two 't's. But as Murphy has argued, the film's original title, which can be seen here in an original poster, adopts the French and English spelling - [le] Cabinet, with a C and a single t. So that the word takes on a meaning which is lost in the German. The French 'Cabinet' is the office of a professional person, in this case the surgery of a Doctor. The most provocative meaning of cabinet, however, may be a third one, common to both the French and German: the cabinet as a side room, or an adjacent space.

It's a wonderfully evocative word, capturing the dual identity of the Caligari figure, a therapist who presides over an asylum or cabinet or ministry of lunatics, AND the shady huckster of the 'sideshow' where he practices occult arts. Caligari - the mountebank who belongs to a disreputable field adjacent to the proper, responsible area of medical science. And depending on what kind of cabinet we look into, we will find Cesare the somnambulist, or Caligari himself, ruling an asylum, or Francis telling a story.

And notice what a quicksilvery pair Caligari and Cesare are. 

Perhaps the more important point is that these homegrown German personalities, the epitome of Weimar film images, are both extra-territorial. They seem to come out of another country and another time.

Our doctor is both an insider and an outsider, a respectable psychiatrist and a mountebank, a master and an obsequious petitioner who grovels before the police and is scorned by the city clerk. He's generally described as the tyrannical madman who dominates the somnambulist Cesare, but he's also something of a sleepwalker himself, a man consumed by an 18th century charlatan who has given him his name and his identity.

Many critics have called the Holstenwall Fairground Caligari's home. True, in the sense that he and Cesare dominate the occult, chaotic ambience of the fair. But this is misleading: they are more precisely itinerants who don't seem to belong either to this place or this time.

They are both given Italian names, as you may have noticed. Though it is linked to a fictitious mystic who supposedly publishes a book on Somnambulism in Sweden in 1783, the name Caligari is also meant to invoke Cagliostro, the historic 18th century magician, alchemist, and all-round fake who travelled to the courts of Germany and France, duping Marie Antoinette among others before being thrown in prison.

As Catherine Clermont wrote, "Cesare is nothing but Caligari's young double [or, I might add parenthetically, his inversion]; Caligari is himself nothing but a double: a double of his 18th C. Italian model; [the] maleficent double of the beneficent psychiatrist. The doctor has no identity, no autonomy; a man who depends on his somnambulist and on a book."

To quote Murphy, “They are in short no-where men who can scarcely be conceived of independently, marginal characters at the center of a film where everyone seems on the margins,  doubling or mirroring one another.”

Francis and Alan might be seen as two versions of a similar role, rivals in love but also two men fighting against an overbearing authority figure. But then Francis and Caligari are interlocked, particularly at the end of the film where their positions as incarcerator and victim are inverted. And then there's Cesare, perhaps the most intertwined character of all. He seems to act out an oedipal scenario on behalf of Francis, killing his rival Alan, and as close as his connection with Caligari appears, he seems no less a mirror or double of Jane, another sleepwalker whose trance-like walk at the start of the film stimulates Francis to tell his story.

Caligari has attracted a variety of allegorical readings, focused largely on the figure of the tyrant and his puppet. This was the formula Siegfried Kracauer worked when he read Caligari as a pre-figuration of Hitler. It can also be taken as a satire on Psychiatry – Freud as a Viennese witchdoctor. Or more generally, a modernist attack against modernist philosophy. Does anyone recognize this man? It's Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th German philosopher who according to one of the co-writers of Caligari, was the visual inspiration for Caligari. The 19th c philosopher, considered the founder of Existentialism, reinvented here as a 20th century quack.

But I'd like to close by citing the allegorical reading Paul Coates first proposed in The Gorgon’s Gaze, grounded not in German politics, but in the cultural climate that existed in Germany during the heyday of Expressionism and the earliest days of movies.

As Coates argues, one way of interpreting this film is as a meditation on the attraction of the forbidden, the secret, and the hidden - a motif that cuts through the many layers of the film. The asylum director wants to become the demonic Caligari, Francis wants to marry Jane, Alan wants to pry open the secrets of his future, and so forth. And the center of this quest for the forbidden, for the dangerous, is the demonic fun fair where Caligari exhibits his magic act. It's a strange kind of act, it hypnotizes, it entrances, it enthralls - and it kills. Yet the attraction itself - that is, Cesare - is also utterly passive, itself under the spell of a director. It's tempting to read this act as a rough draft of the cinema, an optical theater dominated by a charlatan and an evil eye. In this reading, Cesare becomes the voyeuristic machine used for looking, a surrogate who acts out the desires of others.

Caligari, the most elusive and nuanced of expressionist films, can be taken as both the first and last word in German Expressionism. But its influence was remarkably circumscribed. Like so many landmark films, the closer you look the more singular and transgressive it becomes.

Dr Russell Merritt is an author and academic. A well-known Griffith scholar, he has contributed more than 50 entries on D.W. Griffith's Biograph films for The Griffith Project, Vols. 1-8 (London: BFI, 1999-2003). His book (co-authored with J.B. Kaufman), Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Walt Disney Cartoon Series, was published through La Cineteca del Friuli/ Smithsonian Press.

© Dr Russell Merritt and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.