Robert Wiene’s Expressionist classic has never felt more relevant
The current year has been so fraught with troubles that some have taken to demonizing the year itself or thinking about it as a horror movie. The riots, disease, and deaths of 2020 feel like the doings of a sinister agent. It’s as if a mad doctor were rousing a beast from slumber and sending the monstrous subject out into the world to rampage and murder and sow division, suspicion, and fear.
In a way, this notorious year is of a piece thematically with a masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema that came out a hundred years ago. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene’s baroque and haunting silent film, is the story of strange and disturbing events in the village of Holstenwall. Most of the movie is a flashback to scenes remembered by a young man, Francis, played by Friedrich Féher. The eponymous doctor, played by Werner Krauss, who is identified early on as a mountebank—a somewhat antiquated term for a huckster or snake-oil salesman—shows up one day looking to obtain a permit to exhibit at the local fair.
Once installed at the fair, he plans to rouse a freaky-looking sleeper, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, who will field questions from awe-stricken spectators. But Cesare will go on to do far more. At Caligari’s bidding, he’ll break into homes to commit murders and an abduction. He makes off with a young woman named Jane, played by Lil Dagover, with whom Francis and his friend Alan, played by Hans Heinz v. Twardowski, are both smitten.
The people of Holstenwall live in terror of the seemingly motiveless attacks. A local lout arrested for threatening an old woman with a knife says he was taking advantage of the general atmosphere to pursue his petty criminal activities. (This may sound familiar to some of us in a year of riots and looting masquerading as “protests.”) The pursuit of the malefactors leads to an asylum whose director, in a stunning twist, turns out to be none other than Caligari.
In a further startling revelation, we learn that Francis, who has remembered the events comprising most of the plot, is an inmate in the asylum and hence the very definition of an unreliable narrator. But this last twist, which dilutes the message of the tale by exposing it as a madman’s hallucinations, is one that the film’s writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, explicitly opposed and even took unsuccessful legal action to keep out of the film. They had a message and meant it.
And what exactly is the message? Janowitz and Mayer are known to have harbored deep resentment toward certain of the authorities of their time. Both were pacifists in the aftermath of the worst human cataclysm Europe had known. Janowitz’s service in the war had left him particularly embittered, and Mayer had undergone the scrutiny of a military psychiatrist seeking to validate the claim of madness with which Mayer avoided duty.
These facts about the writers, and the role of the shadowy Dr. Caligari as the manipulator of his hapless subject, Cesare, have underpinned the traditional interpretation of the film as a metaphor about the authoritarianism that led the German state to draft and send millions of young men off to die in the war and that would reach its ghastly nadir in the 1930s with the rise of Hitler. This is the thesis of by far the best-known and most influential book on the movie, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.
The writers of ‘Caligari’, Kracauer tells us, set their sights on a too-powerful state that unreservedly went to the extremes of universal conscription and war. “The German war government seemed to the authors the prototype of such voracious authority. Subjects of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, [Janowitz and Mayer] were in a better position than most citizens of the Reich to penetrate the fatal tendencies inherent in the German system. The character of Caligari embodies these tendencies; he stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values.”
The above lines pretty much encapsulate how generations of audiences have viewed Caligari. But not everyone buys it.
What do smart people think about the movie?
The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote that all too often people don’t learn from history so much as “plunder it for facile images.” It’s possible to read too deeply into sociopolitical subtexts and blind oneself to other aspects of the film.
Sabine Hake, Texas Chair of German Literature and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, describes how the focus of Kracauer’s book on such subtexts may have limited people’s ability to appreciate Expressionist films. Trying to point out direct and explicit parallels with political events risks minimizing or ignoring the tension between the conscious and unconscious, or reality and dream, that has been a primary theme of European literature and art since the Romantic period, Hake observes. It’s easy enough to interpret such films as manifestations of authoritarian tendencies, she acknowledges, and indeed there are genres in Weimer cinema that channel a need for strongmen.
“But ‘Caligari’? In my view, it belongs to the Romantic imagination, the world of shadows, doubles, ghosts, vampires, and mechanical dolls. A good comparison would be Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’,” Hake says. “Films do not reflect social reality. They represent ‘daydreams of society,’ which means that their relationship to society, politics, and history is more mediated.”
It’s an excellent point. Rick McCormick, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota, also questions Kracauer’s reading of the film as symbolic of the German middle class’s supposed need to submit to a strongman, adumbrating, in 1920, what would happen in the Nazi period. “I am a bit cautious about reading films as political allegories, especially ones that are supposed to predict the future,” McCormick says. “It’s understandable for Kracauer, after being driven into exile by the Nazis and witnessing the war and the Holocaust powerlessly from the U.S., but still, it was an interpretation with the benefit of hindsight that oversimplified the frustrating modernist ambiguity of the film.”
To assume that Janowitz would have specifically singled out German authoritarianism as his direct target is likewise tempting with the benefit of hindsight. But Janowitz’s nationality was Czech, and as a German Jewish subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he may have found Hapsburg authoritarianism nearly as dangerous as the German version, McCormick posits. In McCormick’s view, Kracauer oversimplified matters and based his analysis too much on later statements by Janowitz and Mayer.
Perhaps the real significance of ‘Caligari’ lies in its bold, not to say revolutionary, visual effects. The bizarre camera angles, ubiquitous shadows, jagged edges, weirdly curving buildings, and silent but infinitely expressive faces and bodies profiled against pitch black capture the ineffable qualities of a dream more effectively than films with many times the budget have done over the past century. It’s a stretch to believe that either film noir or horror would have flourished as a genre without the precedent of ‘Caligari’.
“The film has influenced much avant garde cinema, but it also can be considered one of the first examples of the horror genre, and in America, that’s where its influence was greatest,” says McCormick. The scene in the 1931 film ‘Frankenstein’ where the monster comes into the heroine’s bedroom is a visual quotation of Cesare’s abduction of Jane, he notes. “German Expressionism, of which ‘Caligari’ is probably the best cinematic example, influenced Hollywood first in the horror genre, later in film noir. Ideologically, the film has never been as clear.”
Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
If Kracauer was set on reading the film as a political allegory, then one might ask why he chose to interpret Dr. Caligari’s role, and relationship to Cesare, so narrowly. From one point of view, he’s right that Caligari brings Cesare out of the coffin-like box to carry out actions obediently as his subject or servant. But it’s equally true that Caligari has given awareness and agency to a being that was fully unconscious. Caligari doesn’t just use and exploit someone in a stupor, he gives the gift of at least partial awareness. We could see Caligari’s role as that of a revolutionary instigator rather than a dominant authoritarian, and Cesare’s role, once given consciousness and set loose on the world, as seditious and insurrectionary rather than simply obedient.
From this perspective, Caligari plays a role not unlike that of agitators and revolutionaries of all periods of German history. You might compare him to Thomas Müntzer, the radical theologian who rejected Luther’s more conciliatory approach to dealing with feudal tyrants, faced censorship of his writings at the hands of the Weimar authorities, and nonetheless rallied the oppressed to take on their exploiters in the pivotal 1525 uprising known as the German Peasants’ War. Or maybe he resembles Ernst Toller, the Expressionist playwright and radical who led the Bavarian Soviet Republic in its struggle against the central authority in Berlin in the immediate postwar period, when Janowitz and Mayer were writing the screenplay to their film.
A more recent analogue to Dr. Caligari might be the Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction militants who terrorized West Germany in the 1970s and beyond through horrific bombings and assassinations. Charity Scribner, in her fascinating book After the Red Army Faction: Gender, Culture, and Militancy, recounts how Ulrike Meinhof used a cunning ruse to liberate her fellow terrorist Andreas Baader from captivity. While Baader languished in jail awaiting sentencing for planting bombs in Frankfurt department stores, Meinhof appealed to the authorities for permission to interview him for a study she was supposedly doing.
They complied with her request and moved Baader from prison to a research institute that had no security to speak of. On entering the institute, Meinhof and three others pulled guns and sprang Baader, who accompanied them to safe houses in Berlin and thence to Jordan. In a way, Meinhof was acting a bit like Dr. Caligari, who liberates his subject Cesare from confinement to enable Cesare to terrorize and kill.
Today the political left has its own mountebanks who revel in their self-proclaimed role as agitators spurring the dormant into action. Just look at Robin DiAngelo, who tells whites that they are all racists and their only hope of overcoming their racism is to devote themselves to a lifelong process of unlearning their unconscious assumptions—paying DiAngelo $6,000 an hour for her guidance—or look at Rebecca Traister, who writes and tweets about “the unearned privilege of the white elite.” Then there’s Vicky Osterweil, author of the new book In Defense of Looting, which matter-of-factly urges “people of color” to loot and destroy small businesses as widely as possible.
Who knows, if the provocations go on long enough, maybe someday the right will unleash a mountebank who makes Donald Trump—and Dr. Caligari—look like Mister Rogers.