The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

I was surprised by Caligari. The “twist ending” seems a far more contemporary ruse. What are the first pieces of literature/film that fool us until the moment of revelation? Do they predate this film? I mean, 19th-century American literature is full of supposed surprise endings (What?? Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father??) but we figure things out long before we’re given the official reveal. As one of my students once said, the stories from that time period are foreshadowed to an annoying extent, but it’s clear that we aren’t meant to figure out the endings before the characters. Why is another matter.

I was also surprised by the use of an unreliable narrator. Of course, they’ve been around for ages, too–I immediately think of Poe’s murderers—but I’m wondering when exactly we start getting unreliable narrators who fool even us, the readers/viewers, until the very end.

So, a couple things. As the film ends, we realize that Francis is insane, that he believes the director of the insane asylum in which he is housed is Dr. Caligari or a close enough substitute, that he believes another inmate Jane to be his fiancee, and that yet he thinks another inmate, Cesare, is the somnambulist that the supposed Dr. Caligari has been using to murder others. It seems that Francis is aware that the director is not actually the original Caligari but that he essentially became Dr. Caligari as a result of his obsession with Caligari’s experiments; thus, the “Du musst Caligari werden” scene.

So the main question I’m left with is who is Francis? Why has he been sent to the asylum in the first place? Was there any connection with Jane before he was admitted or has he invented their relationship since they became inmates together at the asylum? If we’re to understand the entire story as a delusion, then who is Alan? Why on earth would Francis invent this person to act as a harmless rival for his love interest who is then killed off? Are we to assume that Francis has committed some sort of similar murder in the past, an act which has led him to the asylum? Is Alan a representative of some aspect of Francis’s past? Or has Alan been invented to subconsciously help Francis deal with some aspect of himself that he cannot confront?

I don’t know how you guys felt, but I found Cesare to be the most terrifying part of the whole film. Although, it is true, he bears an unfortunate resemblance to both Dieter from SNL’s Sprockets and The Cure’s Robert Smith, he also seems the most haunted/haunting figure in the film and reminded me not a little of the demon from The Exorcist. Seems to me he symbolizes repressed desire of some kind. After all, the two people killed by Cesare in Francis’s fantasy are the town clerk (who insults Caligari) and Alan (Francis’s rival for Jane). Cesare attempts to murder Jane but is unable and so only takes her temporary hostage. Although Cesare seems to suggest the horrors of what could happen were someone else able to command our will, he also seems to represent a sort of freedom we could experience if freed from our repressions and allowed to act according to our deepest desires.

And there is obviously some connection between Francis’s conception of Caligari and himself since he suffers the same strait-jacketed fate.

What did you think the doctor meant when he said that now that he understands the cause of Francis’s mania he also understands how to cure him?

Aesthetically, I found myself fascinated with all the off angles, strange swirling patterns, stark trees and shadows in the setting. Obviously, in retrospect, I suppose this all represents Francis’s deluded mind, but it all contributed to creepiness, too. Very “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” only perhaps a less symbolic setting in Caligari. Do we have anything equivalent today to this sort of style today?

And the circular fade in and outs. Are they simply technical, fulfilling a need to shift scenes? What is our equivalent? Do we even notice these gimmicks?

All right–I’m out. Let me know what you all thought. And remember next is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).

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18 thoughts on “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

  1. I think the surprise ending has a longer tradition than it usually gets credit for—I’m thinking Oedipus the King and maybe the Book of Jonah here (neither of which, to be fair, are exactly surprising after 2500+ years)—but Caligari’s use of mental illness and thus unreliable narration rather than to the pre-scientific stuff of mythical/supernatural forces to effect its ending is definitely modern. There’s a crucial factoid here, though: the ending we saw was not the ending as originally conceived. Apparently, the film originally ended with Francis being committed to the mental institution by Caligari himself, in all his bespectacled, Mickey-Mouse-gloved terror. Francis was not insane. He was the victim of a tyrannical authority figure. At least, this is the legend according to Siegfried Kracauer (a philosopher/critical theorist), who felt that the producer-imposed twist foreshadowed totalitarianism’s institutional power over the individual human being. This is all on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia links to Kracauer’s essay. Whatever the political verdict, though, the twist lends a strikingly contemporary feel to the final product and has probably served to make it historically central rather than, say, just notable.

    I was reminded of Shutter Island, the plot of which is one way of imagining how the Director intends to “cure” Francis, and I’ve been trying to think of how to view the main narrative as the Director’s staging of Francis’s delusion for therapeutic purposes, perhaps repeatedly. This is a pretty out-there interpretation, I admit.

    I think that we can take Cesare as a number of different things, and that repressed desire is one of them. He seems to fit the bill for how many people may have thought about the Freudian Id in the 1910’s. It metaphorically “sleeps” in the sense that it is subliminal. We keep it locked away. It is powerless and at the beck and call of a suspicious old man with a professional title. When it gets loose, it 1) kills someone, or 2) tries to kidnap and presumably have its way with someone (=Jane); these correspond to Freud’s two basic drives. So he generally comes off as a mysterious, irrational, and destructive monster, much in the way psychoanalysis is supposed to require people to view themselves, and Dr. Caligari seems to become just as much an object of suspicion as Freud was. In this sense, Caligari takes a pretty strong stance against psychoanalysis while relying on misgivings about psychoanalysis’s conclusions to make Cesare into a terrifying portrait of the individual viewer and even the nascent idea of the “mass audience” itself.

    On the aesthetic end, it was all pretty impressive, especially in its attempt to visually emulate modern painting rather than theater or photography. The first contemporary example of such abstract style which comes to mind is David Lynch, who uses strange, discontinuous sets to be systematically surreal and dreamlike and integrates it all with his surreal and dreamlike narratives (if you can call them that). There are also countless CGI family movies rendered in an abstract style (albeit a much less creepy one—the Matisse to Caligari’s Munch) but is in the service of kid-friendly cartoonishness rather than the representation of something in the narrative. And there’s also (sigh) Tim Burton. Really, it seems that the artistic impulse for anything visually abstract is precluded by 1) the fact that cinema can produce convincing representations of reality, when in the 1920s it struggled to, and 2) the fact that mass audiences expect to see convincing representations of reality.

    Did anyone else see the fourth-wall humor in how Cesare literally pulls off the abstract window frame and tosses it aside (as opposed to, for example, opening it on a hinge) when entering Jane’s room?

  2. Good call on the twist ending. In both cases, we are as surprised as the characters? The only unreliable mentally ill character I can think of would be the narrator of Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse,” who fools us for at least half the story.

    If we had had the ending rumored by Kracauer, it would be haunting in a different way, a variant of the “mad scientist” narrative, like Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Haunting, but an entirely different story. I really like your “out there” take on it, Jack, that the Director IS mad, and he has just found a way to justify some horrific and experimental treatment of Francis, not unlike Caligari’s treatment of the somnambulist. In fact, one thing that made me doubt the story as it was told was that everyone just let Caligari just keep Cesare in that cabinet. Real humane! So if that would be acceptable, then who knows what’s going on in the asylum.

    Freud did talk about sleepwalking in the early 1900s, tying it (of course) to repressed desires, sexual and otherwise. It’s odd to me that Francis “dreams” up another man–a sexual rival, no less–to then kill. If we’re going to go all phallic here (not irresponsible, considering the German origins of the film and its proximity to Freud in cultural history), then it is interesting to me that Cesare (as the unrepressed Francis) can “penetrate” Alan but not Jane with his phallic knife. Maybe that’s some hint to another reason that Francis has been institutionalized: homosexuality.

    I DID notice when Cesare pulls off the window. That’s strange. In addition to humor, could it be an acknowledgement that Cesare (unrepressed Francis) sees the dream he has constructed as a construct? (P.S. Cesare as that figure in black–terrifying.)

    What about how the people in authority all sat awkwardly on those really high chairs? Weird. Can’t think of a better visual metaphor for illegitimate power.

    Had you seen this before, Jack?

  3. I had seen a few short clips in a film study class, but we were never required to watch it all the way through. The discussion focused almost entirely on aesthetics, though, so the overall story and twist ending were new to me (or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention–it was a Monday morning class).

    I buy the phallic reading, but I’m curious as to how the non-somnambulistic murder who is caught and imprisoned might fit into it. He does, after all, attempt to kill an old woman with another sharpened wooden stake. The old woman, though, can be taken as a mother figure, and as the first of two women whom Cesare/Francis is unable to penetrate. But I think Francis may have been institutionalized for something more than just homosexuality. By the end, he does seem to actually be interested in marrying Jane (whose refusal on the grounds that queens cannot follow the “dictates of [their] hearts” is, interestingly, a sort of requital), and the film does quite clearly paint him as delusional and violent. So, even if he was locked up for homosexuality, he has apparently been “cured” of it, though there seems to be a whole other layer of sexual complications at work, and he still has some other screws loose as a result.

    Yes, Cesare’s pulling off of the window did seem to be an acknowledgement of the dream world (I guess I saw the humor as an addition to this), but it makes more sense to me seeing him now as an unrepressed Francis. He can tear through the delusion he’s created, but he still can’t get his imaginary Jane to sleep with him.

    Those high stools were straight out of Kafka.

  4. I hate to speculate too far beyond the bounds of a story, though I could totally see Francis having killed a lover out of shame in the past. Interesting, too, that “queen” is slang for a gay man, but I’m not sure the pun would work in German. And I’ll be damned if I’ll watch the thing in German to try to figure out if there’s any quirks in the language. Anyway, I’m hoping others will chime in soon.

  5. Sorry I’m late. I need to watch these films before the post goes up, otherwise I find that any points I had to make have been stated better already.

    Anyway, I think a psychological (even phallic) reading isn’t out of the ballpark. Cesare is a sleepwalker so he is a representation of the unconscious. His skill is that he can answer anyone’s question, seemingly from the beyond. So he also fits into the template of wish fulfillment and desire that you two brought up. He is just a rather blank canvas for circus guests to speculate upon.

    As for the aesthetic discussion, I do love some German expressionism. The whole movie becomes a twisted dreamscape. The angles are all off kilter, which reminds me of the description of Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s book. As everything is warped, I found myself reading the movie as a shattered psychological drama from the start. With angles askew I couldn’t exactly trust my vision after awhile, so the realism went out the window. The high walls and shattered lights helped, too. It often seemed like the light was coming from a bunch of different sources, even in closed rooms with one window.

    Here’s my pretentious little spiel: expressionism in art is when the artist presents his or her subjective view of the world. As the film is presented as a framework narrative, we’re supposed to view all of the oddities as a cohesive picture of the speaker’s mental state. And then there’s the obvious statement that this is all post-WWI so the German identity was full of shattered visions of self–both on a personal and nationalistic scale.

    Found a great poster for the film, by the way: http://luc.devroye.org/DasCabinetDesDrCaligari-1920.jpg

    And just so my German doesn’t go to waste–Königin!

    PS – Isn’t it possible to read phallic symbols into anything? I’m sorry, but I got enough of that in college to last me a few years…

    1. That’s overly kind of you in regard to my expressionism definition.

      And I read through your blog post–very interesting and well written. By that, I mean it was thought provoking and funny at the same time.

      I tend to see sexual implications in art, too. I got a reputation for that in a creative writing class after I pointed out that a girl’s story could be read as a tale of two repressed lesbians. I just thought she should know…

      And as for phallic designs being necessary, I always think of missiles. They’re not penis shaped symbols of manly violence, it’s just that that shape is aerodynamic. I can’t help it that a yonic shaped device wouldn’t fly too well.

      Karen, I quickly have to thank you for telling me to watch Alien. Otherwise that excellent blog post wouldn’t have been so readable.

      1. Jack, gonna read your post soon. Or comment on it. I think I read it before. And shamelessly plug away. We must all network. I’m interested in the angles thing, Brad. It makes me think of Lovecraft’s method of creating cosmic terror in Cthulhu. I wonder if there’s something going on with discoveries in relativity, also contemporary. Anyway, I watched _Jekyll and Hyde_ last night. Looking forward to discussing that next. Some interesting deviations from the novel.

  6. We need a science person to comment on the relativity, but I think Caligari’s look is more concerned with the contemporary German art scene. It is hard to look up German paintings of the time that don’t have the shattered angles. Film was a baby medium that was trying hard to prove itself as art, so obviously it would borrow from other works. I think that’s part of the reason so many classic books were filmed early on.

    Though I don’t think that’s entirely the case with Jekyll and Hyde, as I plan to talk about soon. Unless you get there first.

    And I know it’s because you’re a teacher, but I’m going to be rebellious and happy about this next one. I’m not rereading the text (it’s been years) so I’m not fully prepared. hehe…I know Millicent is all new, at least.

  7. I’m not exactly a science person, but it seems to me that relativity has always been tied up with mimetic experimentation in art. If the film’s expressionism is supposed to portray Francis’s less-than-perfect perspective on the world, it lines up nicely with special relativity’s lack of a perfect perspective in scientific observation–the “lack of a privileged reference frame.” I can imagine an influence on the set design, the strange camera angles, and the treatment of mental illness. But in the end, these themes are trumped by the authoritative, privileged reference frame of the Director (whose title, I now realize, might be a deliberate play on stage/cinema direction).

    1. I realize this thread might be dead now that we have another movie to talk about, but I just realized something strange about the educational system.

      None of my schools ever taught me the theory of relativity. Instead, they taught Newton’s incorrect “gravity is a force” stuff. This concerns me…

  8. Hah! Well, I think I was also taught that electrons rotated around nuclei in some clear orbital path, like little planets around a sun, when already they had discovered how there are electron clouds and that we don’t really know where an electron is at any point in time. (Is that right?) Perhaps they just opted for ease, assuming that we’d learn the more complicated stuff later on.

    1. Yeah, that’s right. I’ll choose to believe they opted for ease as well. The alternative is that your teachers didn’t know.

      Plus, may I say that when I started reading this I thought you were dating yourself…

      Anyway, I already feel dated. No one is learning about Pluto as a planet anymore…I’m kind of sad about that, in all honesty.

  9. Yeah, Newtonian mechanics are still useful for most applications, so it’s probably the most relevant for the layperson to know. I have a feeling that the sorta controversial philosophical implications of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics/Uncertainty might discourage teaching, too.

    1. Fair point. I just wanted to complain that I had to look up relativity for myself and then watch a few documentaries to clear it up sufficiently for my English major mind.

      The clearest part I remember is that Einstein had multiple pairs of the same suit so that he never had to think about what to wear. That’s genius, folks.

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