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Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari - Step Into the Dark season at the Barbican

As part of the Step Into the Dark season, the Barbican recently screened the German 'expressionist' silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) with live piano 'four hands' accompaniment by Neil Brand and John Sweeney. The film was directed by Robert Wiene in 1919 in Berlin and cast Werner Krauss as Dr Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare the somnambulist. It was made in the revolutionary period after the Great War when film censorship was abolished by the Council of People's Representatives, and a film Different From the Others (1919)written by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld could depict homosexuality in a sympathetic light.

Dr Caligari is a tale of hypnosis and murder imbued with fear, gloom, and oppression in a dislocated world. It was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer in Berlin in February-March 1919. They had both fought in the Great War and their experiences had made them anti-militarist and anti-authoritarian.

1919 in Berlin saw Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, the spontaneous 'Spartacist' working class uprising, described by Paul Levi as ‘the greatest proletarian demonstration in history, proletarians standing shoulder to shoulder with their weapons and red flags ready to do anything.’ The SPD government brought in Freikorps soldiers to crush the revolutionary uprising, and socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered.

Dr Caligari has its origins in Janowitz's memories from 1913 of a sex murder in Hamburg, and Meyer's experience of harsh therapy sessions with a military psychiatrist. Janowitz and Meyer also visited a fairground sideshow in Berlin where they saw a man in a hypnotic state predicting the future. Dr Caligari indicts authority, war, the state, conscription and the slaughter of millions of the working class in the Great War. Cesare symbolises the human used as a tool and violated by the state, and authority is seen as inherently insane (Dr Caligari and the lunatic asylum director are the same person).

Dr Caligari is celebrated for its 'expressionist' production design by the painters Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig. The designs are reminiscent of Kirchner's 'expressionist' paintings of Berlin streets. The 'expressionist' design is jagged architecture, stark geometrics, and oblique projected chimneys on pell-mell rooftops, tree-like arabesques, and buildings out of 'normal' perspective in chiaroscuro lighting. The aesthetics influenced films Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992) by Tim Burton.

There is controversy about the flashback framing device used in the film which was not in the original story. With the framing device Franzis the narrator is seen as insane and the story a figment of his deranged imagination, and the figure of the lunatic asylum director represents benign authority. Is then Dr Caligari not a revolutionary but a conformist bourgeois film? But the film's ending is not shot realistically: lines have not been straightened and 'expressionist' perpendiculars removed; we have not returned to conventional reality. All the characters such as Cesare and Jane are in the Lunatic Asylum but where is the 'murdered' Alan? Is Franzis right about Dr Caligari?