The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Mythos-like madness
German Expressionism distilled through a cinematic lens to create an experience that is captivating and wonderfully unsettling
1920 – Werner Krauss and sleepwalking Cesare – Conrad Veidt – click for full size
The deranged Dr. Caligari and his faithful sleepwalking Cesare are connected to a series of murders in a German mountain village, Holstenwall.
I’ve known of this movie for years but for some reason or another, never got round to hunting it down to watch it.
Then I recently saw the incredibly informative and engaging BBC documentary by Mark Gatiss: Horror Europa.
Amongst the range of unheard of gems of European horror films that he discusses, is a detailed foray into the genesis and production of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Gatiss talks about how the horrors of WWI influenced the writers and artists involved in the making of the movie – and the stance of German Expressionism at that time. Plus a fantastic glimpse of miniatures that have been made of the original sets used during the making of the movie.
I was so inspired by Gatiss’ documentary that I’ve found / reserved many of the movies he covered.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I found on YouTube.
It’s a gripping story, and despite the fact it’s 94 years old, it is immensely watchable. And it’s easy to see why “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is deemed to be one of the most influential movies of its era; an influence that stretches through decades of movie making and story telling, through the shadows and harsh lit angles of film noir, into the glossy fabrications of modern horror in the 21st century. Despite its age, it still punches its weight. And the ending, expertly shifting the focus through a maelstrom of madness, genuinely caught me by surprise and injected macabre delight.
It’s a movie that introduced the idea of a “twist” into cinema.
Cesare creeps through the German mountain village Holstenwall – click for full size
Werner Krauss plays the title character, shifty, unsettling, he is a shabby hypnotist who travels the carnival circuit displaying a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt).
The movie’s hero protagonist is Francis (Friedrich Fehér). And when he and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) visit the carnival that has come to their town, they see Dr. Caligari and the somnambulist Cesare. Caligari declares that Cesare can answer any question he is asked. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare tells Alan that he will die before dawn tomorrow. A prophecy which is brutally fulfilled. Francis suspects the good doctor Caligari, but the local authorities – although interested in helping – fail to stop the murders, and are themselves bogged down by a series of simple but effective red-herrings that make for good story evolution.
Friedrich Fehér as Francis takes the investigation of the murders into his own hands – click for full size
Taking the investigating on his own hands, Francis makes a startling and genuinely chilling discovery about Dr. Caligari – and what is really happening.
The stage sets are something right out of a Lovecraftian nightmare – and probably inspired some in the 1920s American writer of weird, cosmic horror.
And I wonder if there was ever any cross-pollination between Lovecraft and the two writers behind the movie: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – like a Lovecraftian nightmare
Meeting in Germany after World War I, neither Janowitz or Mayer had any film making associations. But they were enthuisastic about their idea – and persevered. Erich Pommer, the producer who finally bought into the idea of making it nearly had them thrown out of his studio – but they grabbed a valuable chance to explain their idea and Pommer was profoundly impressed.
The now iconic sets were the work of designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig; who Pommer had met as a solider – and they were directly responsible for convincing Pommer that it would be effective to paint lights and shadows DIRECTLY on set walls, floors, background canvases, and to place flat sets behind the actors. All of this adding to the weave of disconcerting angles and damaged reality threaded through the story.
Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893 – 3 April 1943) was best remembered for his roles in this movie, and others such as The Man Who Laughs (1928) – - inspiration for the iconic Batman villain The Joker ; and Casablanca (1942) – another massive favourite movie of mine, Veidt plays the hauntingly good looking Major Heinrich Strasser. Veidt left Germany in 1933 to live in the United Kingdom before settling in the United States in 1941.
Events close to the climax of the movie involve disparate characters working together, probing the secrets contained within ancient manuscripts, and this conjures up numerous Cthulhu Mythos scenarios where people desperately try to gain a grasp on what might be happening, through the seemingly chaotic ramblings of long-deceased madmen. There’s also a hint of The Dumas Club, a book written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte – used as the basis for Roman Polanski’s remarkable cryptic and metaphorical movie: The Ninth Gate.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is like Lesser-Mythos tale: where reality has warped around an infectious and corruptive meme – something the arrival of Dr. Caligari has set in motion. Or otherwise… AVOIDING SPOILERS.
At the core of its black and jaggedly highlighted heart, the movie is about a journey into madness. Grist for the Mythos (Lovecraft / Cthulhu) Mill.
It’s fuzzy and jerky, it’s old and it’s strange – and it’s a treat.
Find yourself a copy and take 90 minutes out to enjoy. (Try Bloody Cinema channel on YouTube)
Cinema Lobby Card for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – click full size
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THE BLACK LAKE: The Earth has been ravaged by an event known as Yellow Dawn. Ten years later, survivors are putting lives back together and probing the frontiers of a new Wilderness; whilst overhead the orbital colonies slide across the sky, removed and unaffected. Five men leave the fortress island of Malta on an expedition to the sub-Arctic waters above Scotland. They intend to undertake scientific observations of an alien meteorological phenomenon that has followed the apocalyptic event. What they find is a cosmic horror that seethes amongst the shadows of a shattered Earth. It is a story of escape and wonder, of madness and terror. David J Rodger’s trademark unforgiving rendering of harsh reality, and relentless narrative pace, are here in palm-sweating abundance, delivered in a novel that tears open a rent in the boundary of reality, providing a nerve-jarring glimpse of the Outer Chaos and the horrors that lurk just beyond the threshold of our fragile, human existence.
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David J Rodger – DATA