The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has to be one of the most written-about films ever. This doesn’t surprise me, but I didn’t get a sense of how much had been written until I did a little internet research in the wake of the home video release of the new restoration by the Murnau Foundation. Considering the amount of analysis that’s already been done, it’s doubtful I have anything new to add, but what the hell. I’m just going to noodle on for a while, and if you haven’t done much reading about the film already maybe it will be of interest to you. If nothing else it will also act in small part as a review of Kino’s DVD presentation of the restoration.
On a personal note, I first saw The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in college in a classroom or similar non-theatrical space, but not as part of a course. It would have probably been 16mm film or even 8mm. It made absolutely no impression on me, and I couldn’t understand why the film had such a great reputation. (This is more or less exactly how I first saw Metropolis as well, although that was for a course and I was impressed by the look of the thing even under those reduced circumstances.) Fast forward probably 20 years when my growing cinephilia led me to explore the silent films of the Weimar era in greater depth, and I picked up the Image DVD of Caligari. Despite some annoying flaws in the image, the visual design of the film made a much greater impression on me, and I watched the movie several times. The eerie music by Timothy Brock and ensemble enhanced the experience immeasurably.
When it was announced earlier this year that the Murnau Foundation’s new digital restoration from the original camera negative was on the way, I was very excited, and when the first Blu-Ray screencaps were posted at DVD Beaver, I posted about it here. Finally Kino released their DVD (and Blu-Ray), and lo and behold, the new version really was a revelation to me. It’s not just that the level of detail from the negative is much greater than I’d seen before, and it’s not just that the obtrusive black bar from the Image version was gone, although that made a big difference right there. It was also that a lot of the juddering was gone and missing frames were inserted, which I believe in some cases lengthened shots enough that they finally registered with me. (I watched the Image DVD again after watching the Kino, and it seemed that way anyway.) It’s also likely that because the film is so visually dizzying and because I’m so bad at absorbing plot anyway, it has just taken me a half a dozen viewings to really start understanding what was going on in the story. As many commentators have pointed out, the story is structured in such a way that it resists coherent interpretation by suggesting multiple contradictory interpretations. It creates a mood of uneasiness and dread that’s partly driven by the way it keeps pulling the rug out from under the viewer and leaving things unexplained. Or rather the main explanation offered is that everything we’ve seen is Francis’ delusion, so we’re left trying to figure out why he imagined these things.
For example, who is the gentleman in the frame story to whom Francis narrates the story? He gets the first words of the movie (here in English translation, of course): “Everywhere there are spirits … They are all around us … They have driven me from hearth and home, from my wife and children.” This establishes the mood of mystery and dread. Francis promptly tells the man that his story is even stranger, and he launches us into the main narrative. At the end of that narrative, we return to these two men sitting on a bench, and we discover that they are sitting inside the grounds of the insane asylum. Francis spots “Cesare,” who we thus learn is also an inmate, and warns the man not to ask Cesare his future or else he’ll die. The man looks aghast and creeps away. We learn nothing about him. Is he an inmate? Is he a visitor who, like us, only learns in the end that Francis is an inmate? What of his cryptic statement at the beginning that he’s been driven from his house and family by spirits? The implication would seem to be that he is also mad, but given everything else we learn it’s equally plausible that he’s a figment of Francis’ imagination and that Francis has been reciting his story to himself. From the very beginning we are plunged into uncertainty about what is real and what is imaginary, even if we don’t know it until the end.
The thing I didn’t grasp until these most recent viewings is that at heart the central narrative of Caligari is about a romantic rivalry — a three-body problem. Francis and Alan both love Jane, and one of the key scenes comes when they agree that they’ll let her decide between them. Whatever choice she makes they’ll remain friends afterward. This seems very naive or at least idealistic, to say the least, and almost immediately Alan is murdered, apparently resolving the rivalry in a decidedly non-idealistic way. But what’s remarkable when you get to the end is that Francis doesn’t get Jane either. Now we see that they are both inmates of the asylum, and when Francis asks for her hand, Jane replies cryptically, “We queens may never choose as our hearts dictate.” What the hell is going on here?
A lot of commentators see Caligari as the story of a rejected suitor, but this interpretation, like every other, quickly gets very tangled. For example, Alan is not part of the frame story, unlike Francis and Jane. What does that mean? It could be that Francis murdered his romantic rival and projected all that onto Caligari and Cesare as a form of denial, and this crime is why he’s in the asylum. But it could also be that Alan himself is a figment of Francis’ mad imagination — a projection of himself as an innocent who stands between him and Jane and who Francis thinks must be destroyed before Jane will finally say yes. When this imaginary barrier is finally disposed of, Jane still says no, so Francis is forced to imagine she’s from a station high above his and is forbidden from following the love she really feels for him.
Another odd thing about the love rivalry part of the story is Alan’s question to Cesare. Why does he ask him how long he has to live? On the surface level it seems innocuous enough; we probably all wonder how long we get on this earth. I suppose what’s actually odd about it is that the question itself seems to cause Alan’s death. Even if you interpret Caligari and Cesare as objectively real characters, the only way to make sense of it is that Caligari is a serial killer looking for reason to kill someone and taking Alan’s question as an invitation to death. It’s treating Alan’s question as a death wish. If you then look at Alan as Francis’ projection of his own innocent love for Jane, it gets really twisted. Francis’s innocent love is killed, leaving what?
The sexual subtext of Caligari is very dark and conflicted indeed. The key figure is Cesare, who seems to embody everybody’s inner desires. He is a helpless instrument of Caligari’s dark designs, and yet in one significant aspect he does exhibit a will of his own, although even that is ambiguous. Just as the reason for Alan’s murder is hard to explain in any rational manner, the causal chain leading to the attack on Jane is deeply mysterious. Francis and Jane’s father have been investigating Caligari’s connection to Alan’s murder. Jane becomes concerned at her father’s absence and goes to the carnival to find him. Caligari greets her and takes her to see Cesare. When he tells Cesare to open his eyes, Cesare becomes fixated on Jane. She flees in terror, and before long Cesare heads to her house to kill her. However, he can’t bring himself to kill her, and instead he exhibits all the signs of rapacious lust as he abducts her instead in what appears to be an act of his own will. Before he gets far, however, Jane’s father and other townspeople catch up with them, and Cesare drops Jane and stumbles away to die. Of what? The cause of his death is never explained.
This whole sequence is deeply weird. There’s some kind of equation of sex and death lurking underneath it all, but there’s also the sense that Jane’s feelings for her father (or need of male protection?) is what leads to her encounter with sex-death. Then again, Cesare’s own death before he can consummate reads as an image of impotence. Add the layer of looking at this as Francis’ projection, and it again gets really twisted. If Alan is the innocent side of Francis’ desire for Jane, then Cesare (via Caligari) is the dark side. Perhaps Alan is love and Cesare is lust (Conrad Veidt’s distorted leers are almost comical in this respect), but it’s telling that both of them die. Francis is completely thwarted in all aspects of his desire and attraction. The final image is Francis in a straightjacket, and whatever it means, that really does seem to be the bottom line: the protagonist (if Francis is the protagonist) is completely helpless to choose as his heart dictates.
Another thing I noticed about Cesare this time around is that he exists in multiple representations. We first see him in a poster or banner that Caligari holds up to advertise his carnival attraction. We see the poster again when Jane comes to the carnival looking for her father, so her first encounter with Cesare is also with a representation. Later Caligari substitutes a dummy of Cesare in the cabinet where he sleeps to disguise the fact that Cesare has slipped away to kill Jane. It seems appropriate that Cesare exists in multiple representations, because he himself acts as representation of what other people want. He is Caligari’s agent if we accept that narrative frame, and not only that but he’s fashioned as such as a copy of another mesmerized somnambulist killer named Cesare from an earlier era. If we accept that it’s all Francis’ projection, then Cesare is a representation of Francis’ inner desires. Cesare exists only as an image or copy or symbol of something else.
It’s said the the frame story for Caligari was imposed by the studio, who wanted to soften the implied political critique of the authoritarian establishment figure who turns out to be a serial killer. As a result, the “it was all Francis’ delusion” narrative frame (supposedly suggested by Fritz Lang) allows for endless spinning of theories about what all the action “really” means, and I’ve been having fun with that myself. There are a couple of elements of the story, however, that seem to me to resist the narrative frame more than others.
One is the copycat killer, which is also a part of the story that didn’t stick with me at all from earlier viewings. If you ignore the frame, the copycat killer exists to distract the attention of the other characters from the real killer, although he also adds an interesting layer of observation of human nature and how we disguise our own intent by trying to shift the blame elsewhere. As a copycat, he also reflects the asylum director’s imitation of the old mystic Caligari, except the copycat becomes Cesare. As a projection of Francis’ delusional imagination, however, he’s harder to figure. What mask of Francis’ inner desires does he represent? I haven’t come up with an interesting interpretation myself, and I haven’t seen one by anyone else either. He doesn’t fit into the love rivalry story, and if anything seems to be a random example of murderous impulses.
The story element that strongly resists the frame is the murder of the town clerk. The reason he is killed in story terms is that he’s officious and unpleasant to Caligari. He is the one character I can think of who is only seen by Caligari. Francis never sees him, and therefore it becomes difficult to interpret him as a figment or subject of Francis’ imagination. He feels like the odd man out in the film’s symbolic structure. I’m sure there’s a way to interpret him as such, but my guess is that you’d have to go through Caligari as Francis’ double.
Which brings me to Dr. Caligari. I haven’t grappled much with his character, and I don’t intend to. The thing that struck me about Caligari this time around was the fact that he was a copy of a character in a book, as mentioned before. The story of the older Caligari of 1708 is already a story within a story, which creates the same kind of narrative abyss that the outer frame story does and adds another level of complexity to the outer frame. Which may be another way of saying it resists the outer frame in its own way. If everything is Francis’ projection, how does Francis know about the 18th century Caligari? It’s implied that he and Alan are students, so maybe he stumbled upon the book about Caligari in his studies. But why would Francis project this complicated identity onto the asylum director, which is what the frame story suggests? Even if you ignore the frame story as an imposition, it’s hard to see how Caligari’s origin story fits the writers’ supposed political critique of a German ruling class that murdered its own people in WWI. The modern Caligari is so obsessed with the historical one that he feels compelled to become him, so, what, the ruling class is too obsessed with the past? Du musst Caligari werden. If it’s Francis projecting the whole thing, is he the one compelling the asylum director to become Caligari? Is this another aspect of Francis’ attempt to deny the responsibility for killing Alan, who is his own innocent love for Jane?
In the end, so to speak, Caligari seems to disappear up its own fundament, like an inverse Worm Ourobos.The film will remain famous mostly for its bizarre visual design, but whether intentionally or accidentally it creates a bizarre narrative funhouse very fitting to the design. The new restoration allows us to see the beautifully off-balance sets in greater detail, but what surprised me was how it enabled me to see the off-kilter narrative with much greater clarity as well, even if the greater clarity only increased the sense of staring into a bottomless abyss.