The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, released worldwide 1921) begins with two men, one old one young, speaking in a garden. A woman soon walks into view. It appears as if something is wrong with these men and the woman. The young main claims she is his betrothed. He says they have been through an incredible experience and then begins to tell a story. The movie ends with these men speaking in the garden as well, apparently insane. This is known as a "framing device" (like a picture frame holds a picture, the framing device "holds" the main story) and it was actually added on to the movie against the strong protests of the writers of the film who had a much different ending in mind.
Expressionism perhaps took this one step further by actually changing the external world itself to reflect the subjective sense of anxiety and dread permeating every aspect of German life, on the other hand the camera is much more stable and immobile compared to directors like Gance.
Both styles were highly influential. For example, in Japan both styles were borrowed from and experimented with in one of the first great Japanese films, A Page of Madness (1926) by Kinugasa Teinosuke (Japanese names have the surname or "last name" first, in the West it is Teinosuke Kinugasa):
The main narrative of the film opens on a strange painted landscape filled with sharply angled irregularly shaped objects, this is the fictional town of 'Holstenwall'. A strange old man appears, this is Dr. Caligari. A young man is seen in a small bedroom, the narrator's friend, Alan, he is leaning against an absurdly large chair. He goes out into the town which is also irregularly shaped, he sees an advertisement for the Holstenwall fair and goes to find his friend, Francis, the narrator at the beginning.
The scene switches back to Caligari. He goes to apply for a permit to operate his booth. He is rudely dismissed by a minor official sitting on an absurdly large stool.
The next scene opens on the fairground, focusing narrowly on the circular motion of the organ grinder before opening onto the whole fairgrounds with a large merry-go-round spinning in the background. The people seem to be enjoying themselves. Caligari reappears to promote his attraction. At the same time, the body of the official who was rude to Caligari is discovered. Francis and Alan walk into Caligari's tent. Caligari displays his attraction, the somnambulist (sleepwalker) Cesare, who Caligari says who tell your fortune for you. Alan asks how long he is to live. Cesare responds "You die at dawn." Alan reacts with shock. They both leave, seemingly forgetting the prophecy, they are concerned with winning the love of Jane. At night, a shadow comes into Alan's room and kills him. The second murder so far.
When Francis learns of his friend's death, he immediately remembers the prophecy of the somnambulist and rushes off to alerts the authorities having to ascend an extremely large staircase to get to them. He also tells Jane. The authorities agree to investigate. At the same time another man is caught trying to commit a murder.
Caligari is feeding Cesare, when Francis and the police come demanding answers. They are just starting to question Caligari when they are informed they have captured a murder suspect and they leave. The suspect denies committing the other murders. Jane goes to the fair to find her father. She sees Caligari instead who shows her Cesare, he in turn seems to become interested in her before she becomes frightened and runs off.
Francis decides to investigate Caligari again on his own. He is spying on him through a window and it appears Cesare is in his coffin. However, at the same time Cesare is moving through the shadows on his way to see Jane. He sneaks in through her bedroom window and stands over her ready to stab her. However he is unable to and instead flees with her when Jane's attendants come into the room. This sets off a chase scene, Cesare drops Jane, then runs some more before falling off a cliff from exhaustion.
The police come back to Caligari's trailer and find Francis who sees he has been watching Cesare all night. It turns out that it was a mannequin instead. Caligari slips away in the confusion, but Francis follows him to a mental institution. He asks for assistance in finding Caligari, he is directed to the Institute's head. The head of the Institute is Caligari!
Francis enlists the help of some of the staff who go through Caligari's papers. They find that he is obsessed with the fictional story of an 11th century monk who was able to wield hypnotic powers over a sleepwalker. When, a sleepwalker was delivered to this hospital he began his plan on using the sleepwalker as his hypnotized slave to carry out murders and gain power.
The authorities recover Cesare's body from the ravine where he fell. They bring it to Caligari. He breaks down and becomes hysterical. The doctors restrain him and put him in a straight jacket and lock him up, with Francis looking on. The film then appears to fade out, but then returns to the opening scene in the garden. Apparently the whole story has been a fantasy invented by Francis who is a patient in the hospital along with Jane, Cesare, and Alan. Caligari is the real head of the institute, who is treating Francis and believes that now that Francis has given a name to his terror, he can begin to cure him now.
A proper understanding of Caligari as a cultural product requires an interpretation of at least three levels of meaning: the original screenplay of the writers; the finished product of the film; and the unintentional meaning that is revealed through the interpretation of the critic.
The screenplay for Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Janowitz was not German but Czech, growing up in Prague. He inspiration for the script was a bizarre incident where he may have witnessed a murder. Visiting a fair in Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, one day in 1913 Janowitz was strolling on a street not coincidently named 'Holstenwall' when he heard laughter:
The laugh, which apparently served to lure a young man, vanished somewhere in the shrubbery. When a short time later, the young man departed, another shadow, hidden until then in the bushes, suddenly emerged and moved along–as if on the scent of that laugh. Passing this uncanny shadow, Janowitz caught a glimpse of him: he looked like an average bourgeois. Darkness reabsorbed the man, and made further pursuit impossible. The following day big headlines in the local press announced: "Horrible sex crime on the Holstenwall! Young Gertrude...murdered." An obscure feeling that Gertrude might have been the girl of the fair impelled Janowitz to attend the victim's funeral. During the ceremony he suddenly had the sensation of discovering the murderer, who had not yet been captured. The man he suspected seemed to recognize him, too. It was the bourgeois–the shadow in the bushes (Kracauer 2004 p. 61).
Carl Mayer was an Austrian whose father, a businessman and a compulsive gambler, committed suicide when Mayer was 16. During the war he was examined several times by a psychiatrist, who Mayer did not like which gave him the inspiration for Caligari.
Both men were veterans of the war and whose war experiences had turned both into committed pacifists. Caligari was then supposed to symbolize a world of insane murderous authorities and universal conscription (forced recruitment into the military) for total war, something which they experienced. Cesare is like all the young soldiers who are hypnotically drilled into becoming killing machines on the battlefield. The most subversive element in their script was the idea of the insane Caligari posing as a legitimate authority–worse, as an authority who judges the sanity of others. The same way in which people thought the German military was insane in bringing the country into war.
It was the director, Robert Weine, that added that surprise twist ending and the framing device. It was the profit-motivated decision to have a surprise ending that completely transforms the message of the film. Francis is now the crazy person, and Caligari is really the hero. The anti-war message is removed and traditional authority is no longer criticized. Film, is unique among most of the major art forms because it is the most industrial and requires the largest division of labor to produce, and this is what leads to the often discussed "creative tensions" between writers, directors, actors, producers, etc, in the making of numerous films past and present. Usually, however, these tensions are resolved in favor of the profit motive. In this case: to add the more conservative "surprise" ending. The ending would presumably have the effect of reinforcing traditional authority assuming the audience receives the message in the intended way.
The earliest "motion picture camera" was the kinetoscope invented by Thomas Edison in 1888. This early prototype only allowed one viewer at a time to watch a short film projected through the eye piece.
|Edison's Kinetoscope. Note the eye-piece at the top that you would look into to see the film|
The Lumière Brothers (Lumière means "light" in French) are generally credited with inventing the first real motion picture camera, the cinématograph (derived from the Greek: "writing in movement") or cinema, and for producing the first films shown to the public, in 1895.
At first film was seen as a passing fad but within a few years, the former magician George Méliès had introduced the first special effects into film. Méliès had been in the audience when the Lumière brothers had premiered their first films.
Over the next several years most of the fundamentals of filmmaking were developed as directors found more ways to manipulate the camera and create images: tracking shots, reverse angles, close-ups, editing, etc. In twenty-five years the industry developed very quickly, especially in the U.S. The first U.S. film industry was actually based out of New Jersey where Edison's lab and factory were located. In the early 20th century, filmmakers wanting to make films but also wanting to avoid paying the licensing fees to Edison's company who owned all the cameras, moved out to a location that would be good for filming and also be as far away from Edison as possible. They settled in an undeveloped area of Southern California known as Hollywood. By 1915 Hollywood had already become the capital of the U.S. film industry. Artistically it was led by directors like D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, however by the 1920s the so-called "big five" studios had already become dominant in the industry: Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, RKO, and Columbia pictures, and later 20th Century Fox. Today all but RKO, which effectively went out of business in the 1950s, are the biggest film studios in the U.S. and the world.
Even as early as the 1920s the monopolistic tendencies of the "culture industries" were evident in Germany as well. Decla-Bioscop was the second largest film studio in Germany. In 1921 because of financial pressure from the U.S. film industry which had already become dominant in the world, Decla merged with the largest film studio in Germany, Universum Film AG (Ufa). AG stands for Aktiengesellschaft, a German word for corporation. Ufa was formed in 1917 as a government propaganda arm during the war. After 1916 the German government had banned foreign films and had heavily subsidized the German film industry, as a result the industry developed quickly. Ufa always maintained close ties with the state and large banks including the Deutsche Bank. The Deutsche Bank itself was formed in 1870 at the dawn of the German Empire and until WWI it was considered the largest bank in the world devoting itself mainly to international banking.
Ufa was purchased in 1927 by Alfred Hugenberg (the 1920s version of Rupert Murdoch). Hugenberg became Reich Minister of Economy in Hitler's first Cabinet, but control passed quickly over to Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Ufa produced Nazi propaganda films during the war including Triumph of the Will. After the war, possession of Ufa's assets went to the communist East German state and was reincorporated as DEFA (Deutsche Film AG). DEFA went out of business after reunification in 1990, and Ufa was resurrected. Today it is owned by the Bertlesmann AG a major international media conglomerate.
Bertelsmann began as a publishing house in the 19th century, it was also the largest producer of Nazi propaganda during the war. Like most major media corporations however, its activities are diversified throughout all forms of media: print, radio, television, film, and now the internet. Bertlesmann's revenue in 2011 was €15 billion (about $20 billion dollars), putting it ahead of major U.S. multinational media corporations like CBS Corporation ($15 billion), and Viacom (which owns MTV, $14 billion). Although still trailing behind the three largest media corporations in the world: The Walt Disney Co. ($42 billion), News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch's company, $34 billion), and Time Warner ($29 billion).
Today, the impact of films like Caligari can be seen in the pseudo-tribal forms of sub-cultures, like the horror subculture. Caligari was an influence on films like Frankenstein (1931) which created the horror genre in the 1930s. In the late 1940s and 1950s, many aspects of expressionism were borrowed by the genre now known as "film noir" which like horror is still a highly influential genre today. Most of the best German directors had come to the U.S. after the Nazi regime was established in 1933, many of whom like Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg directed noir films, as did other influential directors like the Austrian director Billy Wilder. The consolidation of media empires and commodification of culture over the last hundred years leads to a diversified form of product that appears in many different forms, usually we call this 'merchandising':
The last level of meaning, I mentioned was the unintentional meaning revealed by the critic. This is the area where the critic or the one engaging the cultural product attempts to unearth the hidden meanings within the object, or as literature critic Leo Lowenthal, remarked, "mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse" (Jay 1996 p. 173). In other words, there is a "textual unconscious" that potentially can be revealed through the analysis of the critic. A text can be more than simply just written words, but almost any kind of language, and film has its own kind of language, but of course in a more literal sense almost all films are based on some sort of screenplay.
The significance of the fairground and carnival are one of the major themes where critics dispute the intended meaning of the scene. Film critic Siegfried Kracauer believed that Janowitz and Mayer consciously intended to show the fairground as an area of freedom and happiness, that their intended meaning was to portray the fairground as a contrast to the evilness of Caligari who is seen as foreign element invading the peaceful land. However, Kracauer argues the latent (or hidden) meaning of the fairground represents chaos and anarchy. The desire to express freedom as the carnival is really the desire to go back to the pre-industrial, pre-modern past (most carnivals and festivals date back to medieval times). The circular movements of the merry-go-round and the organ grinder's arm as he plays his music box are supposed to symbolize chaos, also with the organ grinder you are reminded that someone is working even while others are at leisure in this utopia. Caligari anticipates Hitler. Not that Janowitz and Mayer even knew who Hitler was when they wrote this script, but Kracauer believes that the combination of con-man and psychiatrist is a good representation of the kind of leader Hitler was. Kracuaer's analysis is that the film reveals the nihilistic core of German life in the 1920s and 1930s: a choice between tyranny on the one hand and chaos on the other.
The so-called revolutionary nature of "expressionism" is also criticized by Kracauer–and the Dadaists. Expressionism is a turn away from the external world and instead depicts the external world as expressions of internal states, or to "make the contents of the soul objective." However it is precisely this innwardness that Kracauer and others would criticize. The inwardness of expressionists similar perhaps to Siddhartha's philosophy of detachment, critics argue, reveals a withdrawal and a distancing from the social world and a retreat into the self.
Rolf Nesch, Elbe Bridge I, (1932)Expressionism as a movement in films like Dr. Caligari are important in that it marks almost the exact point in which traditional forms of culture like painting became obsolete by mass culture, and in a secondary sense you can actually see the visual styles of expressionism integrated in the films, summed up by one of the film designers who declared that "films must be drawings brought to life." The use of shadows and light for dramatic effect also became one of the main visual styles of expressionism along with strange distorted shapes.
Here is the film itself. If you want to make the screen bigger, click the lower right corner. After watching the film, please read the second part of the lecture which is also relevant for the next couple of lectures which will be shorter.
Assignment Due 2/28: Choose a scene from the film and describe the scene. Then write your interpretation of the scene and the meaning of it. After that write why you chose this scene and how it relates to the class.
References:Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, Routledge, 2001
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Continuum, 1972
Thomas Elsaessar, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary, Routledge, 2000
Alvin W. Gouldner, The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology, Oxford University Press, 1976
Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, University of California Press, 1996
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton University Press, 2004
Dietrich Scheunemann, Expressionist Film: New Perspectives, Camden House, 2003