not in our stars, but in ourselves
You know I can’t go long without my Weimar movies, surely. And The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is from right out of the gate: released just over a year after the end of World War I, just over six months after the hated Versailles Treaty, it’s an excellent barometer of the German mood at the time. And the mood was not good.
As a horror film, it’s still good and creepy, but that’s not the reason to see it now – at least, not for me. The film opens with Francis (Friedrich Fehér) telling a crazy old man about what he and his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover), have experienced. In his little town, Holstenwall, a strange man arrived at the start of the town fair. Calling himself Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), he had a strange exhibition indeed: the twenty-three-year-old somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Cesare can be commanded out of his sleep to foretell the future. He can also be sent out at night to kill people that Caligari doesn’t like. Cesare kills two people and is meant to kill Jane, but he tries to carry her away for himself.
Meanwhile, Francis and the rest of the town try to close in on Caligari – who is the director of a nearby asylum, and who has gone mad himself. They lock him up in a cell, and Francis closes his story by telling the old man that Caligari is still there to this day. But wait! Plot twist! Francis is himself a patient in the doctor’s asylum, as are Jane and Cesare, all hopeless lunatics. The end.
Caligari is one of the purest film examples of German Expressionism, with distorted sets and strange perspectives. Even Cesare looks like a living version of Munch’s The Scream. In fact, the sets all look quite theatrical or painterly – not cinematic in the least – but within Francis’s crazy story, the craziness in the mise-en-scène contributes to the unreality of what he’s saying.
Other films quickly began to adopt Expressionistic touches, and if you watch any film noir, you’ll notice the debt. But it began in angst, and flourished in the state-imposed isolation during WWI, and exploded after the war. Weimar culture of all sorts is infused in it, and it all indicates a national sickness – deep-seated horror and anger and fear.
Consider the twist in Caligari. Rather than a heroic ending in which the bad guys’ reign of terror was successfully stopped, it all turns out to have been a nightmare. The very demon Francis was fighting is the man in charge. Francis is the madman, not Caligari. It’s interesting to note that the twist ending was tacked on because the producers felt it was slightly too grim with Caligari and Cesare being real necromancer/necromancee, and murderous ones at that; but the ending as it is now is more grim by a long shot. And it’s a pretty good indication of what Germany felt like after the Treaty of Versailles was foisted on them.
Remember: during the war, none of the fighting happened on German soil. It was all “over there,” and the government was careful to keep foreign news and films out of the country. Germans believed that things were going great for them, and that they would win. When they not only lost, but lost brutally; when they were made to pay immense reparations to the vengeful Allied powers; when their economy spiraled out of control as a result; when war veterans, many of whom were too severely injured to work, ended up on the streets; when their wives and daughters ended up on the streets in a different way as a desperate attempt to be able to afford the four-trillion-mark loaves of bread; it had a pretty damning effect on the national psyche. They’d gone from certainty to chaos in a matter of months. No wonder everyone went nuts.
In 1920, all those nearby horrors were yet to arrive – but judging by Caligari, and by other German films from around the same time, they knew it was coming, even if they could hardly imagine just how bad it would get. They knew they were at the start of a very long nightmare, and like any country that had been reasonably stable for however many generations, they were freaking the fuck out at the prospect. You would, too, if it happened to you.