Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The indisputable masterpiece of German Expressionism is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari–both because it’s a perfect example of the style done right (which was less common than you’d think!) and because it’s just plain great filmmaking. A dark tale set in a world of bold, bizarre design, the sharp angles and painted-on shadows of Caligari are as iconic as they are unique.
You might wonder precisely where this strange film came from. After all, in an era when many films strived for a type of elegant realism, Caligari stands out. Even today, it has an edge. We might be tempted to say it was ahead of its time–but was it?
To wrap our heads around the film, we should briefly examine where German Expressionism came from. The movement didn’t start in the movies, after all, but popped up during the wave of early 20th century modern art. In 1905 a small group of students labeled themselves Die Brücke (The Bridge) and created artwork that featured a lot of strange angles and lighting similar to what we see in Caligari. Die Brücke had much in common with other modern art movements too, and many of their new ideas began showing up in the theater. Max Reinhardt, the owner of the prestigious Deutsches Theater in Berlin, encouraged experimentation with lighting and set design and introduced many daring new trends. And thus, modern art and theater combined to form the distinct style that we recognize as German Expressionism.
The term tends to be thrown around a bit today, but German Expressionism was technically a specific style of flat, deliberately artificial sets, sometimes with light and shadows painted right on them. The look was meant to echo the moods of the characters or the overarching themes. The Student of Prague (1913), The Golem (1915) and Homunculus (1916) are considered early German Expressionist films, but the full potential of the exaggerated style would only explode onto the screen once Caligari was released.
Caligari has a fascinating and thought-provoking backstory. It was written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, who both had tragedies in their pasts. Mayer, a scriptwriter in a Berlin theater, had been raised in Austria by a father obsessed with creating a “system” to gambling. When the obsession led him to lose everything, he took his own life, leaving Mayer and his siblings to fend for themselves. Mayer managed to make a living in the theater, and occasionally underwent traumatic exams that tested him for mental illness. Janowitz, an author from Bohemia, had been an officer in World War I. His experiences seeing countless soldiers sent “over the top” to be slaughtered had shattered his trust in authority figures. This, coupled with haunting memories of possibly seeing a murder victim not long before her death, had left a deep impression on him.
Both men shared a distrust of authority, and both were pacifists thanks to the horrors of World War I. Becoming friends in Berlin, they would talk frequently about their tragic experiences as well as their fascination with cinema. They agreed that cinema was becoming a tremendously powerful art form–and a perfect vehicle for introducing powerful ideas. During their conversations, an idea for a screenplay began taking form. While walking through a colorful street fair one fateful night, they saw a sideshow act called “Man or Machine” where a strongman uttered ominous predictions under hypnosis. The sight of a human being performing against his will (in a sense) was the last spark of inspiration they needed–and the plot for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was born.
The film would deal with abusive authority figures, insanity, and duality–the themes that continually haunted Mayer and Janowitz. While neither had written a screenplay before, they wrote it in six weeks, proudly presenting it to a somewhat uninterested Erich Pommer of the Decla-Bioscop film studio. After Mayer read it out loud, Pommer was impressed enough with the script’s unusual horror elements to offer them a contract on the spot. (He also assumed it could be filmed cheaply.)
While Fritz Lang was originally Caligari’s director, he became busy with another project and Robert Wiene was chosen instead. Hermann Warm was in charge of the art design and believed a highly stylized look would be perfect for the themes of the story. He and fellow designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig decided the radical new “Expressionism” would be perfect, and got permission to make their sets as fantastically bizarre as possible. The studio thought this could help draw audiences and also make the film distinct from Hollywood products.
Paper, canvas, and paint were used for the scenery (and faux lighting) in the film, and the somewhat small film studio forced the designers to make creative use of limited space. Some sets played with perspectives, such as the scene where Cesare appears to be standing on a rooftop, or the early scenes where small, strategically-placed merry-go-rounds give the illusion of a busy carnival. Interestingly, much of the radical design choices were the result of low budgets (being post-WWI and all), challenging the designers to make as big an impact as possible with cheap materials.
Of course, all the impactful sets in the world can’t equal a great film without great actors, and fortunately, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, and Lil Dagover were chosen to play the leads. Veidt and Krauss (Cesare and Caligari, respectively) both had experience with Expressionist-style acting and felt very comfortable on the fantastical sets. Lil Dagover was used to more conventional acting, but her whitened face and darkened eyes also made an impact on screen. The look of Dr. Caligari was somewhat based on grim philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, while Veidt’s appearance was intensely Expressionistic, allowing him to fit seamlessly into Caligari’s incoherent world.
The “bookend” scenes were apparently added to the story at the studio’s insistence, much to Mayer and Janowitz’s irritation. Their original script had included a simple framework of having the main character Francis relating the tale of happened to him 20 years prior, while the new scenes seemed to subvert much of Caligari’splot. Janowitz would later insist that he and Mayer were deeply unhappy with the new scenes–and how they twisted their “abusive authority” theme–and had to be talked into not protesting the finished film.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a fairly successful release in Germany, helped by a mysterious marketing campaign where posters and ads proclaimed: “You must become Caligari!” It did respectably well in the U.S. too, where it was marketed as “something new” (although it thrived more in cities than small communities). But today, its influence has reached far beyond 1920, impacting decades of horror and arthouse films. Dependent on the distinct culture of modern art that circulated in Germany throughout the Edwardian period, Caligari was very much a product of its time. But when all is said and done, its value to film history has proven to be timeless.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.