The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Special Edition (1919)
As we are informed through film scholar Mike Budd’s audio essay accompaniment to the film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was created a mere 25 years after film’s inception into popular culture. The film had an important two-fold function, Budd explains, creating a polemic between the popular commercial tradition on one hand, and the artistic, non-commercial tradition on the other. Fritz Lang (Metropolis 1927, M 1931) was initially approached to direct the film, but having prior commitments, left the direction in the hands of Robert Wiene.
The visual style of the classic horror film is a cornerstone example of the German Expressionistic style of the times. Originally it was a silent film shot in black and white 35mm and tinted in green, brown, and steely-blue. Hermann Warm was the designer for the film, and Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig painted the canvass backdrops, on which even lighting effects were painted to masterful effect.
The original ending of the film intended by its writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, posited Caligari as the director of an evil authoritative murder plot, along with submissive accomplice, Cesare. In other words, Francis’s story was entirely true. However, the producer of the film, thinking the writing a bit too dismal on the coattails of WWI, had it altered, replacing its more expressionistic, subversive tones with a frame narrative, or story within a story. This enabled dismissal of the story by the audience as the ravings of Francis the madman. Nevertheless, the artistic direction has left the ending rather ambiguous, with the expressionistic painting bleeding into the “real” scenes. The film itself can also be viewed as a frame, and the audience is left unaware as to how much truth was actually present in the madman’s ravings.
In a famous essay entitled, From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer posits the film as an augury of Hitler’s brand of National Socialism. This view has been widely criticized as overly deterministic, yet the essay remains an important part of the film’s history. A free download of the film is available from the Internet Archive.
- Story B+
- Acting A-
- Visuals A
- Originality/Innovation A
- Enjoyability A-
- Overall A-