June 21, 2004

Myths of Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- or, if you prefer the German title, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari -- premiered at the Marmorhaus, the most fashionable theater on the ritzy Ku'damm in Berlin -- on February 26, 1920. In other words, in the age of mass media, in an era of newspapers, recorded interviews, archives and libraries. Most of the major figures involved in the production have spoken about it (the one exception appears to be Robert Wiene, the director, who died in 1938). If you click on the Amazon link above, you'll see the date of the film given as 1921; if you click on this Amazon link, for a different edition of the DVD, the date is given as 1919, as it is in a page from this book.

I'm often amazed by how much we get wrong, whether "we" refers to reporters, historians or just the average joe in the street. The facts, presumably, are out there, somewhere, but finding them out isn't always easy. (The February 26, 1920 date I cite comes from film historian David Robinson's short book on Caligari; he might well be wrong as well; the reference isn't footnoted for example. If he'd cited a review from a Berlin newspaper from February 27, 1920, I might be a little more comfortable in following him on this. (Here, for example, we find the date as February 25, 1920.)


Some of this is quibling, I know -- Amazon isn't a bibliography, and the companies releasing DVDs are in business primarily to profit, not for historical accuracy. The book reference is more troubling, but really, these are minor points.

But it's hardly the only point of contention, or confusion, surrounding the film. Robinson relates numerous myths from various sources -- that public reaction in Berlin was negative, forcing the film to close (quite the contrary); that protests over the film's artistic style forced it to be withdrawn in Los Angeles (the protests were over the cheapness of a film produced in Weimar -- Hollywood feared losing jobs); that the two script writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, specified the film's distinctive sets (the sole remaining script has no such specifications from the script writers, and one of the designers recalled that it was Robert Wiene, the director, who decided in favor the film's look); that the company that produced the film resisted its artistic daringness (the producers felt that it would be cheap to produce, and that its novelty would be a big attraction, even if the effects didn't quite work).

What interested me most, however, is the myth that the writers had created a political fable -- the idea that Caligari represents unbridled authority, while Cesare, the somnambulist ordered to kill, represented the helpless population. Wiene, by changing the framing device to make Caligari triumphant in the end (we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an asylum, and the doctor his psychiatrist) reversed the film's meaning, making it an ode to authority (to see how prevalent this kind of critique is, see here:

Following its 1920 premiere in Berlin, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was hailed as "the first really artistic film drama." The story, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, concerns Caligari (Werner Krauss), a crazed psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to maintain absolute control over the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) and to force him to commit murder.

The writers intended to make a political statement about Germany's abuse of power during World War I, but director Robert Wiene negates this implication by restoring authority at the end of the film.

Robinson, however, points out that the political interpretation only arose after the 1947 publication of Siegfried Kracauer's book, From Caligari to Hitler:

Between 1920 and 1947 innumerable commentators and admirers wrote about Caligari without declaring any misgivings about accepting it as a madman's story, or suggesting that some symbolic meaning had thereby been perverted. Significantly, two of Caligari's most enthusiastic champions, Paul Rotha writing in 1930 and Lewis Jacobs in 1939, happened to be highly politicised radicals; yet nether sought any political meaning in the film. Hermann Warm recalled that neither Wiene nor Mayer ever spoke of any political meaning in the film, and said that his own head spun at Kracauer's notion that the slow iris from the designer's twirling umbrella-carousel symbolised the social chaos to come. Janowitz's sense of betrayal must have been at least to some extent heightened by hindsight.

A few critics of the time did object to the presentation of the story as the hallucination of a madman, but on rather different grounds. The critic Herbert Jhering was the first to complain that the film portrayed Expressionism as the vision of a madman. The Swiss novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars echoed him, charging that the film 'casts discredit on modern Art because the discipline of modern painters (Cubist) is not the hyper sensibility of madman but equilibrium, intensity and mental geometry.' The objection has been frequently raised since; but the view seems somewhat blinkered. We can equally argue that, far from being shown as the vision of a madman, Expressionism is demonstrated as a graphic style supple and expressive enough to depict that vision.

Nor is the meaning of the film's present denouement as unequivocal for present-day perceptions as it was for Janowitz and Kracauer who considered that it 'glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness'. In an era of endemic scepticism in the face of authority, a fin-de-siecle audience does not so easily accept the ending at its face value. A modern viewer can readily interpret the ending of the film from the position that Franzi's story is true and that the demonic Caligari has used his wiles to have him incarcerated as a madman. Given this reading, the end of the film has the enveloping, inescapable terror of Kafka or Gaslight or the last scene of The Vanishing.

A mere 27 years separated the premier of Caligari and the political interpretation of the film. Of course, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, and the Holocaust were all parts of that time frame. And Caligari, when it comes down to it, isn't an especially important text, if I can apply that word to it (certainly not as important, in terms of historical impact -- including negative impact -- as, say, Mein Kampf). But the imposition of a different interpretation upon Caligari -- a decidedly political reading, which I've encountered dozens of times -- suggests that perhaps we get far more wrong than we realize, and reminds me of others who would impose their own political interpretation on a somewhat older text.

Posted by Ideofact at June 21, 2004 11:59 PM

Perhaps "myth" is the best term for this phenomenon: A story is told, or re-told, in such a way as to emphasize a 'deeper truth' which the re-teller finds important.

Except that when the 'deeper truth' version varies from earlier recorded versions of a real event, the re-telling causes some hearers to doubt the motives of those who tell the story.

Posted by: steve h at June 24, 2004 03:05 PM