On the 27th February 1920 the Expressionist film Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari premiered in Berlin. Directed by Robert Wiene and starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, Das Cabinet was a horror film that became one of the most influential films of German Expressionism. The film used highly stylised sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on flat canvas backdrops. The actors used unrealistic acting technique that exhibited spasmodic and dance-like movements.
The film follows a tale of murder involving a doctor, Caligari, who controlled a somnambulist. The film opens with a young man called Francis sitting talking to an older man telling his story to the older man in flashback. Francis had lived in the town of Holstenwall. With his friend Alan he decided to visit the fair. A stranger, Dr. Caligari , asked the town clerk for a permit to perform at the fair. The clerk was rude to Caligari, but gave the permit. That night, the clerk was found stabbed to death in his bed.
The next morning, Francis and Alan visited Caligari’s booth at the fair, where he opened a coffin-like box to reveal a sleeping figure, Cesare. Caligari woke Cesare who answered questions from the audience. Alan asked ‘How long will I live?’. Cesare answered, ‘Until dawn.’ Later that night, Alan was murdered. Francis investigated Alan’s murder with help from his sweetheart Jane and her father, Dr. Olsen.
At night, Francis spied on Dr. Caligari, and saw what he thought was Cesare sleeping in his box. However, the real Cesare crept into Jane’s home and abducted her. Chased by a mob, Cesare eventually dropped Jane and fled, but collapsed and died. Francis and the police investigated and realised that the Cesare in the box was only a dummy. Dr. Caligari escaped in the confusion, but Francis followed him to an insane asylum. Francis then discovered that Dr. Caligari was the asylum’s director. Francis studied the director’s diary which revealed his obsession with the story of an 11th-century mystic named Caligari, who used a somnambulist, named Cesare, to commit murders. When a somnambulist, Cesare, was admitted to the asylum the director decided to experiment on the new patient in order to understand the earlier Caligari. Francis and the asylum doctors call the police to the asylum. Cesare’s corpse was found and Dr. Caligari attacked one of the staff. He was restrained and became an inmate in the asylum.
The film then returned to the initial scene of Francis and the old man. It was then revealed that Francis, Jane and Cesare were all patients in the asylum. The man that Francis believed was Dr. Caligari was actually the asylum director. Francis attacked him, but was restrained and was placed in the same cell Dr. Caligari was confined to in his story. The director announced that, now that he fully understood Francis’ delusion, he could cure him.
The story of Dr Caligari had arisen out of the experiences of the writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. These two, despite being pacifists, had both seen the horrors the Great War at first hand. Dr. Caligari represents the Kaiser and Cesare is the German soldier trained and expected to kill. The Great War had torn Germany apart and its aftermath, the Weimar Republic, was ill prepared to heal the wounds of war. Politics quickly descended into extremism on both the left and right as blame for the defeat was thrown about; the economy was weak, agriculture and industry had been devastated by the war, and the people were angry, bewildered and shell-shocked. The situation os a madman that had led the country into a war, a people that had killed without waking to the horror and a final realisation that the mad were interchangeable with and undistinguishable from the sane was mirrored in Dr Caligari.
One of the key moments in the film is when Alan asks, ‘How long have I to live?’ . By the second year of the Great War this was a question that many Germans asked themselves. The war not only slaughtered men but by its very nature left dead bodies lying next to the living. Death was random, ugly and ever present. Francis’ depair over Alan’s death ad his need to understand why also reflected those who had survived the war. Why had they survived but their brother had not? What had their brother died for? Why had they survived a war that had been lost?
The parallels between Caligari, the Kaiser, who controls a somnambulist, the German people, to commit murder, start a war, are somewhat obvious. However, the happy ending ‘it was all a dream’ gave a childlike resolution to the horrors of the war. In fact in the original story there is no happy ending. The narrator is not mad. Caligari is indeed the head of the lunatic asylum but he is mad and the murders did actually take place by the somnambulist under the doctor’s control. The original story ended with Caligari as an inmate in his own asylum. The introduction of the happy ending had been at the insistence of the producers, a move that was initially resisted by the director Robert Wiene but to no avail. It may be that the imposition of this ending onto the film saved it from the censors but certainly made the film more commercially successful. The film could be viewed as a simple horror movie with a happy ending or it could, as many on the left saw it, be an indictment of the past four years and in fact the happy ending ‘proved’ the gullibility of the German people. Those naïve enough to believe that ending were foolishly trusting enough to become the somnambulist, as they had for the previous four years, and would again, in the opinion of the left. The fact that Caligari had mesmerised the somnambulist so successfully undercut the ‘it was all a dream’ ending for those with a discerning eye.