The compelling and effective silent film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” directed by Robert Wiene (The Knight of the Rose) is considered, by critics and enthusiasts alike, to be a masterpiece of the German Expressionist movement. The story and screenplay were conceived by Carl Meyer (Sunrise) and Hans Janowitz (Der Januskopf). While the film, according to IMDB, is said to have first been screened in Poland in 1920, there is neither a date, nor a town listed where the premiere occurred. The next mention of the film being screened was in Berlin, Germany on February 26, 1920. If you have seen the movie, depending on what format you first viewed it in, the running time varies. On the VHS tape edition the film’s duration was approximately 51 minutes, whereas, once the movie was restored from existing film prints into a DVD, over twenty minutes of additional footage was added, bringing the film’s runtime to 73 minutes. (As an aside: Hans Janowitz stated that the initial idea for Caligari came about by a personal experience he had, while attending a carnival. He claims he observed a strange looking man, who was following an attractive woman around the carnival. The next day, the woman had been found murdered. When Janowitz attended her funeral, the man that had been stalking her was also in attendance).
The film opens with a young man, who the viewer will soon learn is named Francis played by Friedrich Feher (The Robber Symphony). He is relating a story to an older companion while they sit outside on a bench in a garden. The story Francis is telling his friend centers around an evil man by the name of Caligari. While the two are conversing, a woman dressed all in white walks by, in what I can best describe as a tranquil, dreamlike manner. When she passes the two men, she doesn’t give either of them even a second’s glance. What turns out to be very surprising regarding her completely ignoring them, is that Francis informs his companion that the woman who just walked by them, Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover), is his fiancée. (As an aside: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first movies to ever utilize flashback as a way to advance the narrative of a film).
The mysterious Dr. Caligari is a hypnotist, portrayed by Werner Krauss (Waxworks), who seemingly always appears to be wearing a sinister scowl on the contours of his face. He has arrived at the town of Holstenwall, Germany, at the clerk’s office, where he is applying for the proper permits to exhibit at the town’s fair. The only attraction in his exhibit is a somnambulist named Cesare who sleeps in a coffin – the part is acted by Conrad Veidt (Casablanca). The town clerk doesn’t show much respect, nor does he exercise a great deal of patience while dealing with Dr. Caligari. Interestingly enough, whether through sheer coincidence, or because the clerk disrespected the wrong man, later that evening, the same dismissive fellow is found murdered.
The next day, Caligari is entertaining patrons at the fair while showcasing his exhibit. He is regaling them with information about Cesare’s improbable background and ability. According to Dr. Caligari, the thin and tall, Cesare, who is garbed completely in black, which matches his hair color and dark rimmed eyes, has been sleeping for the past twenty-three years. Caligari has the ability to wake him, and once he does, he informs those in attendance that Cesare will be able to answer any question a person asks about the past or future. Francis, the man from the start of the story, is attending the fair with his best friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski.). Alan has a yearning to know how long he will live? He asks Cesare for the amount of time he has left. The blood curdling response the somnambulist gives to Alan, is that he will be dead by the dawn of the next day. At first, Alan and Francis, appear to be fixated on the morbid answer, but soon move away from matters of horror to those of the heart. The viewer will learn, that there was a time when both men were vying for Jane’s love and affection. In fact, they made an agreement that they would let Jane decide who she wanted to be with, and that whoever she chose, the other would accept their fate, and the men would remain friends. Alan, like the town clerk before him, meets an untimely end before dawn, as predicted by Cesare. His demise, which is shown on screen, is done with a less is more approach. Instead of showing the brutality of the kill, the filmmakers opted to let light and shadow dominate the majority of the scene.
When Francis learns of Alan’s murder, he sets out to do two things: Firstly, he has to inform Jane of the tragedy. Secondly, he decides to help aid the police investigation into his friend’s killing. The search for Alan’s killer doesn’t take long, as the police arrest a man who attempted to murder a woman on the evening following Alan’s murder. The investigation into Alan’s death, however, is not over. While the man does confess to trying to kill the woman, he admits that he was doing so, in hopes that her death would deflect suspicion from him, and would instead be linked to the other two murders. In the interim, while Jane is out looking for Francis, she comes across Dr. Caligari, who invites her inside his dwelling to see Cesare. The appearance of the somnambulist unnerves her, and she runs off having been given a terrible fright. During the evening, Francis keeps a vigilant watch through the window of where Caligari is staying; his sole focus is on Cesare, who doesn’t so much as stir during the night. Little does he know, Dr. Caligari, is several steps ahead of him, and what Francis is actually looking at is a life sized dummy of Cesare. The viewer will learn, that the real Cesare has apparently been given instructions, by the diabolical Dr. Caligari, to kill Jane.
Will Cesare be able to go through with murdering Jane? If he does, will Francis take the law into his own hands and kill the creature? How strong a hold does Dr. Caligari have over his somnambulist? What, if any, motivations are there for the murders? Furthermore, after Dr. Caligari’s ruse is discovered regarding Cesare, he is chased by Francis to an insane asylum. Why would a man, who is trying to escape incarceration, seek shelter in a place where he can be just as easily locked up? All of those questions and more will be answered by film’s end.
In closing, credit must deservedly be given to the set and production values, which were the work of Hermann Warm (Vampyr), Walter Reimann (A Daughter of Destiny), and Walter Röhrig (Faust). What the three men accomplished, would be considered simplistic by today’s standards, but their output was highly stylized for the time period. The film, which was produced on a budget of approximately, $18,000, looks fantastic given its age and the available technology of the early 1900s. The staircases, windows, and walls appear as if they are products of an hallucination, so too do the dilapidated configurations of the buildings that populate the film, which make them appear too dangerous to step into, let alone work or live in. Furthermore, there are particular scenes, where sharp pieces of what take on the appearance of broken, jagged edges of glass, seem to be jutting from the trees and grass of the landscape. For those of you, who normally opt to, perhaps never watch silent films, I think you will be pleasantly surprised if you make an exception in the case of this movie.