Show Don’t Tell: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the gold standard example of early German expressionism in film, is just plain weird. Today we call it a “horror” film, but it’s not scary. It is disorienting and certainly creepy, but you won’t jump in your seat while viewing it. But if you care about the genre known as “horror,” then you have to confront Caligari. If you care about film history in general, about “film noir” in particular, or Post WWI German politics, you have to care about Caligari. Wait, what?

Ladies and gentleman, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is INFLUENTIAL. Often, this weird little movie is lost in the cacophony of critical extrapolation, exegesis, and anagogy. This point was recently hammered home to me when I had the opportunity to view Caligari, in a theater with live musical accompaniment. This is silent movie heaven to me. My long suffering SO, who frankly does not love silent movies and doesn’t give a rat’s about how any individual film is important, came along. As we left the theater after the screening, he turns to me and says, “Oh, that was terrible!” My response, to offer multiple ways in which Caligari is important, forced me to step back and examine my assumptions about the film.

the cabinet of dr caligari

The good news is that, after a think, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still comes out a winner. The pleasure I experience from viewing silent films is derived from witnessing a nascent art form struggling to be actualized. True, viewed through this lens, I never fully rise above a contextual reading of a silent film. But I do try to judge the artistic success or failure of a silent only against other silents. I view the “silent film” as a separate form from what we today call a “movie.” My love of this form is bittersweet because, while the vocabulary and syntax of the silent film haunts the contemporary cineplex, the form is (largely) lost to us. Is Caligari important? Yes, duh… from film noir to Tim Burton, yes it lives on. But what about Caligari captured it’s contemporary imagination firmly enough to endure 80 years on?

I’ll skip the plot synopsis, on the assumption that anyone reading this is probably familiar with the basic story. If not, the IMDB entry is here, the TCM entry is here, and the Silent Era entry is here. Take a read, and be warned, spoilers below.

The narrative here is simple, though the narrative constructs are fairly sophisticated. Viewing this film today, the unreliable narrator twist may seem overworked and tired, not to mention handled clumsily in this case. But the narrative frame (the entire film is a flash back) and the twist (Francis is the lunatic!) are revelatory in 1920. Most films of 1920, not all but most, remain mired in the linear narrative form, inherited from stage production. While many theatrical elements persist in Caligari, the director Robert Wiene and the writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer are reaching for a new narrative syntax shakes off the constraints of the proscenium arch. As a contemporary viewer, it’s hard to rate what the effect of this sort of dislocated-in-time narrative might have had on it’s 1920 viewers. I suspect that the linear dissonance might have heightened the sense of confusion and displacement brought to bear from the set design, but I can’t be sure.

the cabinet of dr caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has some critical flaws, even it terms of its moment in time. The most cardinal sin is that the camera does not move. Wiene delivers a lot of long duration, medium shots of characters discussing, cogitating, and emoting. The acting of Friedrich Feher as Francis falls firmly into the broad, hammy gestures of many silent movies performances and leaves the viewer longing for the return of the far more subtly expressive face of Conrad Veidt as Cesare the Somnambulist. If the camera stands in for the viewer’s eye, more close-ups (and perhaps extreme close-ups) would have reflected the sense of claustrophobia and impending doom of the set design and made the viewer complicit in Francis’ fantasy. Though other filmmakers were making strides in elevating the camera from mere mechanism to actor in the narrative meaning of films during this period, Wiene was not there yet as a director.

Which brings me to the most startling and important aspect of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the mise-en-scene. While the elements of camera work and acting are overlooked in Caligari, mise-en-scene is pivotal to the meaning of the film. By 1920, films had made progress away from the early “actualities,” but not giant leaps. In most cases, films were both linear in narrative and naturalistic in representation. From the moment the viewer of Caligari sees the sets, the weird, frightening, flat set pieces canted toward the characters at menacing angles, she knows this is not meant to mimic the world she lives in. The narrative dissonance of the frame, the flashback, and ultimately the twiss, explodes in the set design. To an absolute extreme, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari communicates the intention to signify rather than represent, to show not tell. This is subtle psychological prep for the coming narrative twist, as we cannot be in doubt that wherever or whenever we are, things are not right here. As the viewer eventually learns, we’re in the mind of a mad man where everything is indeed skewed.

the cabinet of dr caligari

There is some chatter in the world at large that undermines the intent of the set design, costumes, and make-up in the service of conveying the skewed environment of a mad man’s mind. Allegedly, the twist ending was tacked on by producer Eric Pommer and the film was originally intended to end with Dr. Caligari revealed as the madman and carted off to the asylum. This fact, if true, does create a puzzling enigma and this is often where thought about Caligari veers into the non-filmic, typically into the political. I’m not going to address this topic, thought it’s fascinating. I’m sure there are entire university seminars, or at least could be, on the subject. There’s no shortage of books, essays, and reviews out there that will address this, for those who are interested.

In the end, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is worth watching. It’s worth watching multiple times, and viewing through multiple lenses of thought and criticism. But above all, the film is worth viewing on its own terms – for its startling achievements and missed potentials. And while Caligari is decidedly not scary in a make-you-scream-like-a-little-girl kind of way, it will haunt well after the projector stops and the lights come up.

Further reading on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

Review on Silent Volume

Article from Broken Projector

Review from The Film Tribune

For more information on the politics of Caligari, I’ve read The Haunted Screen by Lotte H. Eisner and From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfried Kracauer, but I would love to hear further suggestions.

In his book, Seductive Cinema, James Card includes an anecdote about tracking down a print of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (a highly recommended book, by the way, with a wonderful Caligari chapter). Unlike Mr. Card, we do not have to spend our entire university tuition to hunt down and view Caligari.

You can download the entire film at the Internet Archive here or you can watch on YouTube:

About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on May 13, 2011, in Horror, My Reviews, Silent Film and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. A great point you make about Caligari’s narrative flexibility as a break away from the proscenium stage. As was already being demonstrated by Griffith, cinema has a narrative fluidity closer to the novel than to theater. I had read once that Caligari’s set design actually came about because of budget constrictions–the producer couldn’t afford the lighting equipment, so the sets were painted to simulate light and shadows! If so, it was a lucky accident. Certainly the roots of film noir can be traced here. Enjoyed your insightful post.

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