The EMPIRE ESSAY: Cabinet of Doctor Caligari Review

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Francis tells the story of his friend, Alan who meets a hypnotist Ceseare who predicts he will die. When Alan is murdered Ceseare is the prime suspect.


Several claims have been made on behalf of Robert Wiene's silent classic — few of which can actually be sustained. Even the credits are disputed, with nigh on every key contributor keen to aggrandise their role in what has long been acclaimed a watershed production. What can't be gainsaid is that the screenplay was written by Czech poet Hans Janowitz and Austrian artist, Carl Mayer, who drew on a murder case and a mutual suspicion of psychiatric assessment to concoct the tale of a fairground barker who misuses his hypnotic powers to compel a mournful cipher into doing his evil bidding.

That arch fabulist, Fritz Lang, who was briefly assigned to direct the film, insisted that he had worked extensively on the script and devised its controversial coda, in which it transpires Caligari is far from the deranged director of a lunatic asylum living out a sinister fantasy, but a benevolent philanthropist striving to save our hero from his own dangerous imaginings. Lang's dishonesty is matched only by Janowitz's disingenuity. Postwar he tried to disassociate himself from the framing device after it assumed an unwelcome political significance.

The recently discovered copy of the original shooting script, which includes a variation on the bookend idea, also disproves Janowitz's contention that the film's remarkable visual appearance had been devised by the writers. Having failed to persuade Czech artist Alfred Kubin to design the stylised decor, Robert Wiene hired Deck's own Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann, who turned to the paintings of Edvard Munch and the Expressionist stage designs of pioneering impresario Max Reinhardt for the inspiration for their cramped, crooked town of Holstenwall.

On a more pragmatic level, an electricity shortage meant it was more efficient to paint in the lighting effects than waste precious power. Similarly, Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt (who played Caligari and his sidekick Cesare) were both Reinhardt alumni and were able to fashion their own grotesque make-up and exaggerated gestures. By no means the first German horror film to make an international impact (Paul Wegener's The Student Of Prague and The Golem did that), Caligari has always been credited with inspiring an Expressionist boom in German filmmaking, thanks to its angular painted sets, mannered performances and psychologically daring themes.

But, in fact, it was a stylistic one-off — or at least it is now, as Hans Kobe's feature, Torgus (1921), and other slavishly Expressionist "homages" which no longer exist. Other films of the period certainly included examples of Expressionist design, but the physical aspect of Wiene's experiment remained unique. Consequently, it's even pushing it to state that any of the other schauerfilme ("shadow films") made in Germany in the 1920s were Expressionist in the truest sense. Certainly pictures like Warning Shadows (1923), Waxworks (1924) and Metropolis (1927) reflected the troubled national psyche, but they drew on the popular artistic strategy of stimmung (" atmosphere"), which owed more to the gothic.

Similarly, the suggestion that the film preconditioned the German people for the acceptance of Nazi rule is also hard to justify. In From Caligari To Hitler, his seminal study of cinema's influence on the dark Teutonic soul, theorist Siegfried Kracauer argued that Caligari was a bogus Messiah whose outward displays of strength merely masked tyranny, while Cesare the victim, hypnotised into doing his evil bidding, stood for the mesmerised German people who were complicit in Nazi atrocities.

Read in 1948, with the guilt of World War II still haunting the newly divided populace, such scapegoating might have seemed persuasive. But now, it's as fanciful as it is understandable. Defeat and despair hang heavily over Caligari, but surely the collapse of an empire, the suppression of a militarist tradition, the failure of a socialist revolution and the penury of a Depression had a more profound influence on the advent of Nazism than Friedrich Feher raving about proto-zombies.

Most damningly, 80 years after its release provoked heated analytical debate, Caligari has even lost its critical kudos and is now considered more a curio than a bold advance towards a new horizon of cinema art. So if it didn't really achieve any of the things it's famous for, why has this contrived, distorted, stilted film retained such an intense fascination? Forget the fact it heralded in an era of studio perfectionism in 20s Germany or inspired an unprecedented decade of avant-garde experimentation around Europe.

Caligari is one of the genre's masterpieces because, rather than providing visceral shocks, it plays games with the mind — the seat of all fear. The eccentric imagery, the creepy acting, the dark deeds and the ambiguous ending all create a lingering sense