Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The vertiginous sets synthesize with the film’s more rudimentary narrative of doubling to achieve radically luminous social ends.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Photo: Photofest

Subjective trauma becomes subaltern desire in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a silent-era über-classic that’s most commonly been examined for its pioneering use of German Expressionist lighting, set design, and role as a proto-horror film. By focusing almost exclusively on formal and generic characteristics, these more historical and socially neutral readings have lost the film’s thoroughly embedded, queer narrative, aside from the work of scholars Alexander Doty and Harry Benshoff, who attempt to locate these qualities as actually within the film itself. Little effort, however, has been made to align form and content as a means to reveal how Hermann Warm’s vertiginous sets, as emblems of non-normative time and space, synthesize with the film’s more rudimentary narrative of doubling to achieve radically luminous social ends.

The primary figure to understand, then, isn’t Francis (Friedrich Feher) or Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), but Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the murderous somnambulist under Caligari’s control. Cesare is first glimpsed as a life-sized drawing outside Caligari’s tent at the local carnival, which makes a caricature of Veidt’s slender face, to the extent that his cheeks are exaggeratedly shrunken in, perpetuating an effeminate stereotype indicative of photographic, physiognomic depiction. Cesare’s face is feminized because he’s merely a vessel for Caligari’s hegemonic control. Cesare’s actual face is first shown in a vignette close up, eyes closed as he furrows his brow and slightly moves his lips. Once his eyes open, he’s in immediate contact with the viewer, staring directly into the camera. Such an introduction, in relation to the previous drawing, reveals Wiene’s explicit framing of Veidt’s features as speaking to the sociological constraints affiliated with androgyny, especially given Cesare’s literal, but heavily allegorical role, as a figure of precarious submission.

There are historical reasons to understand Veidt’s casting as intended to accentuate this line of thought—namely his role as a gay musician in 1919’s Different from the Others, which was heavily cut and altered by German censors. Veidt’s physicality became affiliated with non-normative sexuality from these very controversies, which take significant root in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s most visually dynamic sequence, where Veidt’s body is made just as askew as the sets themselves. Note how Cesare creeps along the outer walls of Jane’s (Lil Dagover) bedroom, his right arm as distended as the jagged shadows and light behind him. His body isn’t simply an extension of the expressionist image, but a corollary to it, his akimbo extremities not as metaphor, but metonymic for the extremes of Wiene’s modernist visions. No other character in the film moves in such a manner; Cesare’s body is the only object of sustained contemplation.

Veidt’s casting is a necessary companion to Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s screenplay, which understands Caligari as a fascistic type given to ensnaring those around him with a circuitous flair for carnivalesque deceit. He’s a man of legend, whose tale is inscribed within a book found by Francis late into the film, at the moment in which he discovers Caligari the carnival ringleader is also Caligari, director of the local insane asylum: a ringleader of a much more insidious, juridical sort. Wiene plays these developments through crosscutting, with Francis unveiling the mystery as Caligari grows increasingly driven to madness, certain that he must “become Caligari,” in one of cinema’s most virtuoso, precursor sequences for melding on-screen text and narrative, since the phrase “du musst Caligari warden” literally encircles the unhinged doctor. Caligari isn’t simply a character or figure, then, but an idea, one that takes throat-clenching hold both within the confines of Wiene’s film, but also emanates from the screen with a force that queers the very notion of stability and identity. Cesare remains without agency, but that’s because the film’s top-down superstructure never crumbles. The film’s creative forces combine to offer both narrative and visible, visual evidence of an attempted sledgehammering of hegemonic order, even if matching, revolutionary upheaval never manifests in the film proper, with Caligari’s institutionalization but a minor, perhaps even ironic, victory for overthrowing authoritarian reign.

There’s also the matter of the film’s frame narrative, which Siegfried Kracauer has explained as both the production company and Wiene’s alteration from Mayer and Janowitz’s screenplay, despite their protests. In essence, it offers Francis as the crazed one, with a final revelation that the entire film has been, essentially, the ravings of a mad man, who has recast his cellmates as characters in a twisted rationalization for his own innocence. Perhaps the turn undermines Mayer and Janowitz’s more stringently political interests, but it illuminates the manner in which cinema speaks, in an avid, polymorphous manner, to a libidinal correspondence between meaning, movement, drive, and politics. A film-by-committee, but, even so, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains cinema’s preeminent embodiment of dream-screen anguish.

 Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger  Director: Robert Wiene  Screenwriter: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz  Distributor: Kino Lorber  Running Time: 77 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1920  Buy: Video

Clayton Dillard

Clayton Dillard is a lecturer in cinema at San Francisco State University.

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