There are many striking features in Robert Wiene’s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German silent horror film, but the one that stands out is the theme of trust. Who can be trusted? Is anyone or anything what it seems? In a horror movie, of course, trust is a shaky thing, but Wiene’s production values are so outlandish and distorted, that they elevate the sense of uncertainty and imbalance far beyond the plot. This is in keeping with Gerald Mast’s explanation in A Short History of the Movies: “The Expressionist filmmaker had to design and construct an artificial landscape that was graphic in inspiration and boldly disturbing, on and beneath the surface” (170). The sets, music, techniques, even the overacting and over-long shots all work to create an artificial landscape that is loaded with ambiguity. The audience can’t trust its own judgment because everything is so skewed.
The film’s opening is less expressionistic than the rest of the film, yet it makes a strong impression and sets up the question of who is in charge. Together with trust, control can be either reassuring or unsettling. By the looks of things, Caligari is going for unsettling. The iris effect opens onto the first scene that is hard to decipher. Two men sit motionless with what appears to be white string hanging around them, Francis’ head lolls to one side, and only the “string” moves slightly. They look like marionettes, but they come to life when the man in the background starts talking. It quickly becomes clear that these are not puppets, they are men sitting in a desolate garden, and the strings are actually dead branches. The setting could have been established without putting the branches in front of the men, but placing them there and making them white, not only makes them visible, it makes a statement. It’s a quick statement, but the visual impact lingers and raises the question that remains beyond the final scene: If they are puppets, who controls the string?
The iris effect continues throughout the film. At just the right moments it opens and closes the collective eye of the audience and gives a sense of the classic hypnotist’s refrain, “You are getting verrrry sleepy.” The shadows and strangeness of the setting reinforce the sense of being under a spell.
When the story of the town clerk’s murder comes out, the intertitle tells us it is “the first of a series of mysterious crimes.” At this point, Cesare has been mentioned at the fair, but he has not been on screen yet. Because of Caligari’s earlier interaction with the clerk, the audience is led to think that he is the killer, but as the story progresses, we are redirected.
The killer could be Cesare or Caligari. As I watched, I realized there could be a third suspect. The love triangle between Francis, Alan, and Jane suggests that Francis had a motive for killing Alan. The bright lighting on Alan’s face, compared to the darkness around Francis when they are together, further pushes this idea. By the end of the film, we still don’t know who committed the murders. It’s true that Cesare is seen entering Jane’s room to kill her, but he can’t go through with it and only kidnaps her instead. This situation leaves open the possibility that Cesare didn’t kill Alan or the town clerk.
Near the end of the film, we learn that the mad man is not Caligari, but Francis. In a scene that mirrors Dr. Caligari’s earlier capture, Francis is wrestled into a straightjacket and led into the room where Caligari was held in the earlier scene. The difference is that when Francis is dragged in, the chaotic paintings that were clear when Caligari was there, have been scribbled over and blurred. This example of Expressionist technique is a strong representation of change and confusion. Again, the audience doesn’t know whom to trust. While Francis lies agitated and rocking, Dr. Caligari is now the sane-looking Dr. Sonnow, the director of the asylum. Dr. Sonnow doesn’t wear the round eyeglasses that gave Dr. Caligari such a crazed look. His hair stripes are gone and so are the matching gloves. After Dr. Sonnow tries unsuccessfully to calm Francis, he signals the orderlies to sit Francis up. This recollects the scenes where Caligari sat Cesare up, like a puppet. Dr. Sonnow turns toward the camera, reaches into his pocket, and puts on the round glasses. He turns back to Francis whose eyes instantly widen and he goes still. As Caligari/Sonnow looks into Francis’ eyes, Francis stops moving, his breathing calms, and the orderlies lie him back down. We don’t know if he is hypnotized by Dr. Caligari/Sonnow, but it appears that he is. Caligari turns to the camera again and pointedly removes his glasses. The intertitle says, “At last I understand his mania. He thinks I am that mystic Caligari–! And now I also know how to cure him.” The final scene has Caligari putting his glasses back into his jacket pocket. The iris slowly closes in on his face and holds for a long shot. His appearance is more Sonnow, than Caligari. The glasses, the clownish hair stripes, and the gloves are gone once more. The maniacal expression is changed, but it’s not gone. Although he looks like Sonnow, shades of Caligari remain, and that is chilling.
We’re left to wonder: Who is in charge? Who is the mad man? Can those in control be trusted. Interestingly, the behind the scene story of the addition of the framing narrative against the wishes of the writers, reinforces those concerns. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari doesn’t answer these questions, but by virtue of plot and production values, it asks them again and again.
Mast, Gerald, and Bruce F. Kawin. “The German Golden Age.” A Short History of the Movies. 11th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. 170. Print.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dir. Robert Wiene. Perf. Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover. Decla-Bioscop, 1920. Netflix. Web. 29 August 2015.