Psychiatry Films from AMHF: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1921, remade 1992)


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German Expressionism at its cinematic peak

German Expressionism at its cinematic peak

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the eighth of twenty-one films discussed in this blog. It is the earliest movie and the only silent one. It works by flashback and is a vivid visual re-creation of intensely scrambled mental states.

The story line, somewhat condensed from Wikipedia, is as follows:

The main narrative is introduced using a frame story as told by the protagonist, Francis. He and an elderly companion are sharing stories when a distracted-looking woman named Jane passes by. Francis narrates an interesting tale that he and Jane share.

The story begins with himself and his friend Alan, good-naturedly competing to be married to Jane. The friends visit a carnival in their German mountain village of Holstenwall, where they encounter Dr. Caligari and a near-silent somnambulist named Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt), whom the doctor keeps asleep in a coffinlike cabinet.

Caligari barks that Cesare’s continuous sleeping state allows him to know the answer to any question about the future. When Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, Cesare bluntly replies that Alan will die before dawn tomorrow: a prophecy fulfilled. This violent death at the hands of some shadowy figure becomes the most recent in a series of mysterious murders in Holstenwall.

Francis, along with Jane, to whom he is now officially engaged, investigates Caligari and Cesare, which eventually results in Caligari’s order for Cesare to murder Jane. Cesare nearly does so, revealing to Francis the connection of Cesare and his master Caligari to the recent homicides. But Cesare refuses to go through with the killing because of Jane’s infinite beauty, and he instead carries her out of her house, pursued by the townsfolk. Finally, after a famous cinematic chase, Cesare releases Jane, falls over from exhaustion, and dies.

Francis in the meantime goes to the local insane asylum to ask if there has ever been a patient there by the name of Caligari, only to be shocked to discover that Caligari is the asylum’s director. Francis learns that the man known as “Dr. Caligari” is obsessed with the story of a mythical monk of that name, who, in 1093, visited Italian villages and similarly used a somnambulist under his control to kill people.

Dr. Caligari, driven to see if such a situation could actually occur, deemed himself Caligari and has since successfully carried out his string of proxy murders. Francis and the asylum other doctors send the authorities to Caligari’s office, where Caligari reveals his lunacy only when told that his beloved slave Cesare has died.

Caligari is then imprisoned in his own asylum.

The narrative returns to the present moment, with Francis concluding his tale. An O. Henry-type ending reveals that Francis’s flashback, however, is actually his fantasy: He, Jane, and Cesare are all really inmates of the asylum, and the man he says is Caligari is his doctor, who, after this revelation of the source of his patient’s delusion, says that now he will be able to cure Francis.

Delusion is the key to understanding this dream-like film. AMHF was organized around the year The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made. It was a time when Freudian theory was soaking thro the consciousness of Western culture. It was an era wherein the patient on the couch, with all the opening of doors to the unconscious mind, was capturing the public imagination: certainly the more sophisticated elements of the public on the advent of the Roaring Twenties.

It is interesting that the psychiatrist-protagonist, Caligari, is projected as a villain and killer. This projection comes from Francis. Like Gregory Peck’s character in Spellbound, Francis can only be cured when he is able to interpret the source of his delusion. Some of the same is seen in the Bette Davis character in Now, Voyager.

German Expressionism had a profound effect on cinema especially, in Hollywood largely via Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of weird Expressionist effects toward the end of suspense and crime. In fact, Expressionism predates World War I and even the 20th century. What the viewer finds in Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and others is first informed by Georg Buechner, Frank Wedekind, and August Strindberg.

Classic Freudian psychoanalysis and German Expressionism, thus in a way go hand in hand. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a significant film from the standpoint of this blog for its depiction of the asylum certainly, but, more importantly, for its projection—its “expression”—of the jagged, cutting cliffs of the emotional life of the mind: what the Victorian-early modernist poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed.”


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