Posted by Susan Doll on September 16, 2013
Along with Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane, Dr. Caligari is a staple in many introductory film courses, including mine. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen this story of a madman who manipulates a sleepwalker into killing for him well over 100 times. I was sad to discover that it is slated for 2:15am EST, forcing those who want to catch it to set their DV-Rs or other time-shifting devices. Given its importance, it deserves to kick off the evening’s programming.
In text books and film courses, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is lauded as the first German Expressionist film, a distinction with several important implications. Dr. Caligari borrowed the formal characteristics of a painting movement and adapted them to the new medium of film. The emphasis on mood, monsters, and the macabre make this other worldly tale the grandfather of the horror genre, while its use of visual techniques to advance the story and suggest theme redefined the role of mise-en-scene in filmmaking. The bulk of the action in which Dr. C wreaks havoc on a small village is set in the past, but the opening and conclusion in which the main character Francis begins and ends his morbid tale takes place in the present. The scenes set in the present are known as the framing device.
Beyond the text book reasons for Dr. Caligari’s significance, which make it must-see viewing for all movie lovers, the stories surrounding the production are peculiar, adding to the film’s charm. A clear, accurate behind-the-scenes record is not possible, because contradictory anecdotal accounts by members of the creative team muddy the waters.
No recollections are more bizarre than those of cowriter Hans Janowitz. According to Janowitz, he was first inspired to compose a tale of eerie mystery as far back as 1913, when he had a sense of foreboding regarding the war. Adding to his creepy vibe was a Hamburg murder mystery in which a young girl was killed by a fiend at a carnival or fair. In later years, Janowitz’s thoughts about the impact of that murder on his psyche varied. In some interviews, he claimed to have read about the murder in the newspaper, which compelled him to check out the crime scene and then to attend the girl’s funeral, where he got the distinct impression the killer was among them—just watching. In Siegfried Kracauer’s book The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Janowitz recalled attending the fair when he saw a young girl walk into a wooded area. The next day he was shocked to discover the girl had been killed. As in the previous version, he attended the funeral and had the eerie feeling the killer was there, too.
The murdered girl, whose name was Gertrud, continued to haunt Janowitz through WWI, where his feelings of disquiet were magnified by his experiences in the German army. He spent five and a half years in the military, hating every moment. His brother Franz, who was an aspiring poet, was killed in 1917, adding to his hatred of the military and his distrust of authority. After the war, Janowitz supposedly fell in love with an aspiring actress named Gilda Langer, a widow unable to return his feelings because of her profound sorrow at the loss of her husband in the war. According to Janowitz, Langer became the inspiration for the character Jane in Dr. Caligari.
After the war, Janowitz met fellow writer Carl Mayer, who—like Hans—felt the German government was morally wrong regarding the war. Later, he told friends and colleagues that “Germany had gone mad with the misuse of power.” He did not want to go to the front or serve in battle, though a military psychiatrist was determined to send him there. Mayer spent the war attempting to prove that he was insane but to no avail. His experiences furthered his distrust of all authority figures—an attitude that began when Mayer and his siblings were tossed into the streets by their father who had gambled away the family’s money.
The scenario for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was unusual to say the least. It was born of Janowitz’s and Mayer’s personal experiences rooted in the horrors of a particularly brutal war (at least for Europeans), a personal brush with a deviant murder, and the dark side of human nature. The format of the scenario was also peculiar: It consisted of a detailed description of every scene, including instructions for the movements of the actors as well as the overall look of the setting.
The pair took it to producer Erich Pommer at Decla (later Decla Bioscop). At this point, accounts of the film’s genesis begin to differ. In later years, Pommer claimed that Mayer read the entire scenario to him, which prompted him to purchase it immediately for 800 marks. Mayer and Janowitz wanted an artist named Alfred Kubin to design the sets, but Pommer was more interested in making money than in “experimentation.” Pommer claimed he asked the Decla design staff, which included Hermann Warm, to work on the set design. The decision to use a two-dimensional approach to the sets, in which lighting effects, shadows, windows, doors, backgrounds, and other details were actually painted onto backdrops was done to conserve electricity—according to Pommer decades later. He claimed Decla’s quota for power and light had been almost reached for that month, and using painted sets required less electricity. He was not thrilled with the sketches for the designs until he and Warm did a screen test, which made him realize how well they would work. However, most historians dispute Pommer’s story as nonsense. It sounds too similar to the kind of anecdotes concocted by other cantankerous filmmakers through the years because they dislike scholars and historians to interpret their work.
In Janowitz’s version of events, he and Mayer wrote the final scenario as a challenge from Pommer after Fritz Lang suggested the producer hire Janowitz as a writer for Decla. Pommer liked the scenario so much that he paid them 6500 marks. Janowitz thought the reason that artist Alfred Kubin did not get hired for the set design was because the studio misread the name “Kubin” as “kubist,” which was German for cubist, or modernist. Thus, Hermann Warm hired painters who worked in the modern mode of Expressionism for the set design. In the least likely version of how the film’s unique set design came to be, Fritz Lang recalled in one interview that he had suggested the Expressionist style to Pommer. Lang was asked to direct The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he declined, probably because he was scheduled to make the second or third entry in the series Die Spinnen. All versions of the story downplay Hermann Warm’s contributions, which were likely considerable because he brought in the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig to create the sets.
Lang’s influence on the set design is unlikely, but
If you watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tonight—and this is the perfect movie for insomniac night owls—try to imagine it without the framing device. What impact does Janowitz and Mayer’s version make on you? Do you think the film is more powerful with the framing device, or with the biting message about Germany?
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