Opening the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

By Jordan Gerdes

            In the last three years, I watched The Cabinet of Dr Caligari(1919-Robert Weine) for the very first time. My cousin, who had screened it in a German class, recommended it to me and she thought I would enjoy it due to my love for horror. It blew me away the first time I saw it. However, this time screening it, I took a more analytical approach to my viewing. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful set designs. What we are viewing is essentially a stage play, which hides that fact through jarring and disorienting Expressionist set pieces. The scene of Holstenwahl on the hill particularly stood out to me. You have cottages and houses stacked on top of one other, with roofs like daggers, almost something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The darkness and contrast of the set paintings add such a surreal depth to what is surely a small stage. My favorite scene is the chase scene over the bridge, as the bridge jags in and out of itself, pointing in at the subjects, drawing the eye to a natural focal point. It’s such a small detail and adds so much to the audience viewing.

            Essentially, we are given a retelling of a tale of what may or may not have happened to the man dictating the story. Francis tells the tale of how he, along with his friend Alan, encountered his fiancée, Jane, and the nefarious Dr. Caligari at a carnival show. Caligari comes into town claiming to have full mental control over a somnambulist; a man who he claims has been asleep for 23 years. Caligari claims the man, Cesare, can tell the future. There are murders being committed in town, and soon, after Cesare predicts he will die, Alan is murdered. Francis then begins his campaign to prove that Cesare, through the guidance of Caligari, is committing these murders. Jane is almost kidnapped by Cesare, and eventually, Francis finds out that Caligari is the head director of the local insane asylum. They lock up Caligari after finding evidence in his secret cabinet and all seems to be well. However, the scene returns to the establishing shot, where Francis is recounting the story. They walk inside and we see Jane, who is convinced she is a queen. We see Cesare standing awake, holding a flower. And we see Caligari, still the head of the facility, grab Francis and put him in a cell, claiming he “now understands how to cure him.” This twist gives the audience doubt that Francis may not be sane, and may be embellishing some or all of the story we just watched.

            Freud’s essay on The Uncanny begins with the definitions of the phrase we translate as “Uncanny.” From the German word Heimliche, meaning familiar, as well as secret or hidden away. The opposite of that is Unheimliche, which means unhomely, or unfamiliar. Freud begins to describe that this idea of the uncanny is the effect that leaves a person in uncertainty, whether in reality, literature, or anything else. These uncanny fears can be anything from ghosts and spirits, to death, darkness, or the loss of humanity. His theories deal with repression and expression, the first being the condition that enables a primitive response in a person through something that appears in the form of an uncanny event. The fear of death may manifest through the return of the dead to the living, establishing that the human does not know what may happen in the afterlife.

           Dietrich Scheunemann’s essay on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and tries to refute Krackauer’s claims that the rise of Hitler can be understood through German cinema and media, namely Caligari. Scheunemann’s evidence lies in an analytical response to the film, discussing the ideas of the doppelganger, the expressionist design, and the framing devices that Weine utilized in the film. The characters are understood through doppelgangers, as they each have multiple characters that fall under the same actor or actress in the narrative, which could explain the idea that Francis is imagining or embellishing most of the events witnessed. The expressionist design used showcases the anxiety that Wiene was trying to impart on the audience. The daggered roofs, the harsh angles and the fragmentation of normal architecture give us small clues that this may also be a fantasy, that Holstenwahl looked a way in reality, and looks completely different in Francis’ mind, which is thru what we view the majority of the film. And the framing devices used, the bench and the box, give us two captive narratives through which the stories are told. Francis is Cesare, as he is responsible for the majority of the murders in his insanity of finding the “true killer”. This explains why he is committed in the end of the film.

            The larger cultural context is one of complicacy.  The hero we root for the entire movie turns out is quite possibly insane. The uncanny in such a film is the fact that we don’t truly know anything. We are basing our opinions of the characters of a tale related to us by a man who is interred in an insane asylum, for reasons that are never explicitly insane. We see this in later films such as Shutter Island, that leave the audience divided on what truly happened and how much is truly real and what is the delusions of an insane man.

            My largest question that remains is the one I have addressed multiple times over the course of this entry. Is Francis truly insane? And if he is, is he the killer? I don’t believe the first two murders were Francis, and I am not sure Alan’s was either. But the loss of his best friend, and the stress of the situation could have turned him into a killer. We see shadows in the film that are unlike both Cesare and Caligari, and look quite a bit like Francis’ silhouette, lashing out as his mind is lost in the hunt of Caligari.

Regardless of Franics’ condition, the fact remains that Weine has created a film that continues to haunt audiences, plaguing us with questions of sanity and delusion. This film turns 100 this year, and for one of the first horror films in history, it still holds quite the punch.

Texts Used: Sigmund Frued- “The Uncanny”

          Dietrich Scheunemann –  “The Double, The Décor and The Framing Device”

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