February 26, 1920 (Germany), release date
Directed by Robert Wiene
Screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
Music by Giuseppe Becce
[No editing credit was listed, not that I could find.]
Cinematography by Willy Hameister
Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt as Cesare
Friedrich Feher as Franzis (some sources list him as Francis)
Lil Dagover as Jane Olsen
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Alan
Rudolf Lettinger as Dr. Olsen
Hans Lanser-Ludolff as the old man on the bench
Henri Peters-Arnolds as the young doctor
Ludwig Rex as the criminal who attempts murder
Elsa Wagner as Alan’s landlady
Distributed by Decla-Bioscop
I have heard The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari described as proto-noir, or a precursor to film noir. I am going to use the term avant noir (avant in French means “before”) because it is closer to the beginnings of the tradition of classifying films noir, which came out of French interpretations of U.S. films released in Europe after World War II.
I had seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when I took film courses years ago in college. Because of my interest in film noir and neo-noir, I decided it was time to see the film again, and I have seen it twice recently, both times on DVD. The first time was a DVD produced from a 35 mm print restored by the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv of Germany. It featured the original color tinting and toning, and English-language intertitles. The second time, I watched a DVD distributed exclusively by IMAGE Entertainment; it also included color tinting and English-language intertitles, and audio commentary by Mike Budd. Mike Budd’s commentary was a great way to learn about the historical and cultural contexts of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and I can’t recommend it enough.
So is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a horror film or a precursor to noir? I would say that the choice does not have to be either-or. The film does include many noir elements: murder, tension between sanity and insanity, existential dread about facing life’s absurdity, postwar alienation, German expressionism, flashbacks.
I read online (and mostly at Wikipedia) that the film was the creation of two German writers who began to distrust authority after their experiences during World War I. The only difference between The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and any film noir is that the postwar alienation follows World War I and not World War II. Franzis tells his story in flashback to the man sitting on the bench next to him in the opening frame sequence. Later in the film, when Franzis and the doctors read Caligari’s diary, the film cuts to more flashbacks showing what Caligari describes in his diary. Thus, the film incorporates flashbacks within a flashback.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered part of the German expressionist movement in cinema, and German expressionism is part of the foundation for later film noir. The sets and the costumes in the film are fantastic and surreal. Dr. Caligari’s costume is purposely odd: black and white streaked hair, pulled back in rows; gloves striped with black that make them look skeletal from a distance. The sets are exaggerated and representational, with angles, shadows, and light painted directly onto surfaces. The scene in the town clerk’s office emphasizes the control that the clerk wishes to exert over everyone who comes in requesting information, and it does so by using exaggerated props. Dr. Caligari is forced to wait, sitting on a short stool, while the clerk perches on his chair, on high, and scribbles away at his desk.
Conrad Veidt portrays Cesare, the somnambulist who is Dr. Caligari’s act at the town fair. He is barely recognizable in all his makeup as the same actor who played Major Heinrich Strasser, the Nazi officer in Casablanca. His portrayal of Cesare waking up during the act at the fair is said to have frightened moviegoers, although I think audiences today would find him a lot less frightening. Maybe seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 2016 means that it is easier to see the noir elements in it.
One noir element that’s missing from the film is a femme fatale. Except for Jane Olsen, women do not play large roles. Alan’s landlady, along with Jane, makes the list of characters, but she doesn’t even have a name of her own. Jane’s role is not one of femme fatale: She’s an innocent victim, but she’s not exactly the damsel in distress. To her credit, she puts up a good fight when Cesare comes slinking into her room at night. He finally gets away with her in tow, but he has to abandon her rather than risk getting caught.
(This blog post about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari contains spoilers.)
Mike Budd makes the following points (among many others) about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in his audio commentary accompanying the DVD from IMAGE Entertainment:
• Both the flashback story that makes up Franzis’s story and the frame story are told in expressionistic settings, but the settings in the frame story shouldn’t be expressionistic if they aren’t meant to show Franzis’s psychological state. They should be realistic if Caligari is truly the asylum’s director and Franzis is truly institutionalized.
• The actions surrounding Dr. Caligari’s straitjacketing and the cell where he is placed are repeated when Franzis is straitjacketed and put in the same cell. The difference is that the walls of the cell have been hastily repainted for Franzis, but viewers can still see the design underneath.
• When the iris shot closes on Dr. Caligari claiming to know how to cure Franzis, are viewers really reassured by his pronouncement?
I wasn’t reassured. I wondered if maybe the doctor is still the crazy one, even if he is back in his job as the asylum director. I thought the film was making the point that the boundaries between sanity and insanity are much more fluid than people would like to believe. The writers had just emerged from their wartime experiences: Hans Janowitz lost his younger brother in World War I; Carl Mayer was forced to undergo repeated interrogation sessions by a military psychologist about his mental condition. People in positions of authority had brought Germany prolonged death and destruction, which could be described as madness on a much greater scale. Dr. Caligari, with his manipulation of Cesare the somnambulist into committing murder, is perhaps the same kind of madness, but on a much smaller scale.
I have read—and I just can’t remember where—that the German title of the film could also have been translated in English as The Office of Dr. Caligari, and I have wondered ever since why the word cabinet was chosen. The word office makes a lot more sense to me. The film hints at bureaucratic red tape, showing Dr. Caligari’s dissatisfaction with the way he is treated by the town clerk when he applies for a license to participate in the local fair. Dr. Caligari’s appearance at the fair with Cesare, the somnambulist, takes place in a temporary office of sorts. And both Dr. Caligari and Franzis use Caligari’s asylum office: Caligari to research the somnambulist from Italy, and Franzis to investigate Calgari’s roles in the local murders.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent classic and was released almost 100 years ago: I doubt it will go through a title change now. But I am happy to call the film both a horror film and an avant noir. Maybe it will be easier to categorize the film a bit differently than it would be to request another translation—a retranslation—of its title.