Saturday, October 31, 2015

Stubs – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Starring: Werner Krause, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski. Directed by Robert Wiene. Screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer. Produced by Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer Run Time: 71 minutes. Germany Black and White, Silent, Horror.

Hailed by such a luminary film critic as Roger Ebert as "the first true horror film", The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema. German Expressionism, and I’ll try not to sound too much like school, was a movement that began during World War I and reached its peak during the 1920’s. Largely confined to Germany, which was isolated following the War, it was part of a general expressionist movement in Europe at the time and was seen in such diverse areas as architecture, painting and cinema.

The German Expressionist movement in cinema produced several horror films, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). Hollywood, in general would benefit from an emigration of German filmmakers, bringing the likes of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Karl Fruend, who got their starts in expressionism to the U.S. The movement, which used light and dark effectively, is also seen as a pre-cursor of sorts to Film Noir.

While there are varying stories about the production of the film, the story starts with Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer. The two writers were introduced by a mutual friend, an actor named Ernst Deutsch, in the summer of 1918 and Gilda Langer, an actress with whom Meyer was in love, encouraged the two to write together. The screenplay took six weeks to write during the following winter. As with any writer, their past experiences influenced the story. Meyer, who had claimed to be have a mental breakdown to get out of the war, had gone through extensive psychiatric examination and modeled Dr. Caligari after one of his doctors. Janowitz claimed to have seen a murder in 1913 near an amusement park in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, beside the Holstenwall, which would be used as the name of the village in the story. Janowitz also claimed that the name Caligari was inspired by a rare booked called “Unknown Letters of Stendhal,” which featured a letter from the French novelist to a French officer named Caligari. However, no record exists of such a letter and it has been suggested that Janowitz made it up.

Through Fritz Lang, the two met with Erich Pommer, the head of production at the Decla-Bioscop film studio on April 19, 1919. Pommer asked them to leave the script, but Meyer was adamant about reading it to him and Pommer acquiesced. So impressed was Pommer that he refused to let them leave until they had signed a contract, which gave Pommer authority to make any changes he felt were appropriate. Pommer may have loved the story, but he was also drawn to the idea that the film would be inexpensive to make.

Economics being what they were at the time, even though Germans were seeing more movies, the currency and the economy were tanking due to the Treaty of Versailles requirement that Germany pay reparations to the Allied victors. German studios, like Decla-Bioscop, were looking for projects that could be made inexpensively and still be accessible to foreign audiences, which were used to looking at films made in Hollywood. Pommer’s decision to use painted backgrounds, rather than built sets, was driven by this commercial reality.

Pommer’s first choice to direct the film was Lang, but he became unavailable since he was already filming another film, The Spiders. Robert Weine was selected as a replacement. Weine had been a writer of films, since 1913 and a director since 1915, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would be his most famous and influential work.

The sets were designed by Hermann Warm, who was brought into the project by producer Rudolf Meinert. Given a copy of the script and asked to come up with a proposal for the design. Warm felt that the film needed an abstract design. Warm brought Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig into the project. The Walters were painters and stage designers, as well as Warm’s friends. The trio spent a full day and night reading the script and it was supposedly Reimann who suggested an expressionistic approach. Director Weine would also claim the idea as his own.

The abstract expressionist sets with their painted on shadows is one of the things that makes the film distinct.

Meinert agreed with the idea, no matter who’s it may have been, and encouraged the artists to make the sets as “crazy” as possible. But again, like Pommer, finances drove the decision. Since Expressionism was hot at the time, he counted on the artistic style to garner attention and make the film profitable, even if the film was not received well critically. The artists were given free rein with set design, costumes and props. It’s said Warm worked primarily on the sets, Rohrig handled the painting and Reimann took charge of the costumes.

The role of Dr. Caligari was supposedly written with Werner Krauss in mind, an actor Deutsch had brought to Janowitz’s attention during rehearsals for a Max Reinhardt play. While the role of Cesare was originally intended for Deutsch, it went to another actor, Conrad Veidt. Both Krauss and Veidt had a background in Expressionist theater and helped with final touches to their character’s makeup and costume, knowing how important their appearance would be as part of the film’s visual style.

Filming took place at the Lexie-Atelier film studio in late December 1919 through the end of the following January. It is shot exclusively in a studio which was considered unusual at the time, but dictated by the Expressionistic style the filmmakers were after. The involvement of the writers during the filming is disputed, with Janowitz claiming they refused to allow for changes in the script during production, and Pommer claiming Meyer was present every day on set. But Warm claims that neither was never present on the set or involved in any discussions during the production of the film.

Because the Lexie-Atelier studios, built in 1913 were rather small, some things in the script had to be cut or changed because they couldn’t be filmed, including a procession of gypsies and several scenes involving horse carriages.

The film opened on February 26, 1920, less than one month after it was completed. The film had been marketed like any other film, with an extensive campaign prior to its opening. And despite Pommer’s fears that "It will be a horrible failure for all of us!" the film was a success, showing at the Marmorhaus theater in Berlin, where it premiered for four weeks, unusual for the times.

The story is told as a flashback. Here Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells his enthralled audience of one, his story.

Most of the film is told in the form of a flashback using a framing story. The film opens with Francis (Friedrich Feher) sitting on a bench next to an older man. Francis is complaining that the spirits have driven him away from his family and home, when a dazed woman named Jane (Lil Dagover) passes them. Francis explains to the man that she is his "fiancée" and that they have suffered a great ordeal.

While Francis is telling his story, his "fiancee" Jane (Lil Dagover) saunders by.

The story Francis relates takes place in Holstenwall, a shadowy village of twisted buildings and spiraling streets. Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are both in love with Jane, but their competition is good-natured. The friends plan to attend the town fair together.

The village of Holstenwall as depicted in the film.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) goes to see the city clerk about a permit to present a sideshow at the fair. The city clerk, who sits in a very high chair, is rude to Dr. Caligari, but ultimately Caligari receives the permit. However, that night, the clerk is found stabbed to death in his bed.

Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) on his way to see the city clerk.

The next morning, Francis and Alan stop at Dr. Caligari's spectacle, which features a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Caligari opens a coffin-like box to reveal the sleeping Cesare, but upon Dr. Caligari's orders, Cesare awakens and answers questions from the audience.

Dr. Caligari's sideshow act at the fair.

Even though Francis tries to stop him, Alan asks Cesare "How long will I live?" To their horror the answer is, "Until dawn." Later that night, a figure breaks into Alan's home and stabs him to death in his bed.

Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) watches helplessly as Cesare enters his bedroom.

Grief-stricken over the death of his friend, Francis investigates the murder with the help of Jane and her father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). Dr. Olsen obtains police authorization to investigate the somnambulist.

The police, meanwhile, apprehend a criminal (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who is caught attempting to stab an elderly woman. While the criminal confesses to trying to kill the woman, he denies any involvement in the other murders. He was only trying to use those murders as cover for the one he was trying to commit.

One night, Francis stakes out Dr. Caligari and sees what appears to be Cesare sleeping in his box. However, the real Cesare is sneaking into Jane’s home while she sleeps. He is about to stab her with a knife, but decides to kidnap her instead. After a struggle, he carries her out through the window out to the street.

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in Jane's (Lil Dagover) home.

But a mob chases Cesare through the streets, but he eventually drops Jane and runs off, only to collapse and die. After confirming the criminal had been locked up during Jane’s abduction, Francis and the police further investigate Dr. Caligari’s sideshow and discover that the Cesare in the box is really only a dummy.

Cesare carries Jane through the streets of Holstenwall with a mob (not shown) chasing him.

In the confusion, Dr. Caligari escapes, but Francis tracks him to a nearby insane asylum.

Francis learns that Dr. Caligari is not a patient, but rather is the asylum's director. While the doctor is sleeping, Francis, with help from the asylum staff, goes through the director's records and finds his diary. The entries reveal the director’s obsession with the story of an 18th-century mystic named Caligari, who used a somnambulist named Cesare to commit murders in northern Italian towns. The director’s obsession gets the best of him when a somnambulist is admitted to the asylum. Caligari turns him into his own Cesare. The director is shown screaming "I must become Caligari!”

The asylum director is obsessed with becoming Dr. Caligari.

Francis and the doctors call the police to Dr. Caligari's office, where they show him Cesare's corpse. Dr. Caligari then attacks one of the members of his staff and has to be restrained in a straitjacket. Dr. Caligari is then placed into one of the cells in his own asylum.

The narrative returns to the present, where Francis concludes his story. But in a twist, it is revealed that Francis is actually an inmate in the very asylum. Jane and Cesare are both patients there as well. Jane believes herself to be a queen, and Cesare is fully awake. Dr. Caligari is, in fact, the asylum’s director.

This time, it is Francis who attacks him, but he is restrained in a straitjacket and placed in the same cell Dr. Caligari was confined to in his story. After examining Francis, the director confidently announces that, now that he understands Francis' delusion, he knows how to cure him.

The film did well in foreign markets, but as with practically everything about this film, how well is a bit of a discussion. After the film opened in Paris on March 2, 1922, it supposedly played at one theater for seven consecutive years. In the U.S., Samuel Goldwyn’s Goldwyn Distributing Company bought the rights and opened the film in New York on April 3, 1921 and in Los Angeles on May 7, 1921. Protests in Los Angeles forced the theater to pull the film. However, the protests were not over content, but rather the fear that Hollywood jobs would be lost with the importing of German films into the U.S. While box office wasn’t the public data it is today, it’s hard to say how well the film did in release here. Two separate film historians took a look at the available information from the time and came to different conclusions, but what do you expect with this film.

Of the actors in the film, Conrad Veidt is the best remembered today. He would be America’s favorite Nazi to hate during World War II, most famously appearing as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), sadly one of Veidt’s final films. A fervent anti-Nazi, Veidt would flee Germany to the UK and then to America. When it looked like he would typecast as a Nazi, he made sure to stipulate that they always be shown as the villain.

Before he left Germany, Veidt would appear in such classics as Waxworks (1924), The Student of Prague (1926) and The Man Who Laughs (1928). In two of these films, Waxworks and The Student of Prague, Veidt would appear with his Caligari co-star, Werner Krauss.

Conrad Veidt as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari carrying Jane.

Unlike Veidt, Krauss was very pro-Nazi and an anti-Semite. For a time after the war, he would be banned all together from the German stage and from films.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most interpreted mainstream films ever made. Due to when it was released and the subsequent rise of socialism in Germany, the film has been interpreted to be foreshadowing of Hitler’s rise to power, illustrating German’s need for a strong ruler. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film by Siegfried Kracauer proposed a connection between the apolitical and escapist orientation of films made during the Weimar-era and the rise of totalitarianism of the Nazi’s Third Reich.

Kracauer’s thesis was disproven by Thomas Elsaesser in his book Weimar Cinema and After. Elsaesser describes Kracauer’s work as a “historical imaginary.” Elsaesser argues that Kracauer had not watched enough films to be able to support his idea. Also the discovery of the original screenplay has disproven some of Kracauer’s assumptions, including the idea that the framing story was added after production, when in fact the script does contain one, although different than the one that was filmed.

But Halloween is not the time to be discussing the rise of Nazism in post-World War I Germany. Horror films are selected for their scare factor, not their political allusions, present or not.

In the end, though, the film probably won’t scare anyone today. A killing sleepwalker seems mild by today’s standards. And the film, despite its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, suffers from a slow pace, again as judged through a modern filter, and overly melodramatic acting, sadly common with silent films. What you can’t say with words has to be expressed in exaggerated gestures that either seem funny or too old school. The title cards used have so much screen time that you are almost able to learn the German language.

Still, there is something seminal about the film that makes it right for Halloween: this is one of the earliest examples of the horror genre. While a sleepwalker might not seem like a scary monster, there is a little of the Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in the Dr. Caligari / Cesare relationship. And as noted above, the use of shadows, both real and painted, is a precursor to the shadowy world of Film Noir that was given life by German expressionist filmmakers who immigrated to the U.S.

Personally, I find Nosferatu (1922) to be scarier, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfect example that a film doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective or have an impact.

Be sure to check out our other Horror film reviews here.

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