The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

dr caligari

© 2012 William Ahearn

The story goes that in 1919, Erich Pommer, the head of Decla, approached Fritz Lang about directing “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,” then in preproduction. Lang attended script meetings and made the suggestion that the story be framed by a realistic prolog and epilog to offset the madness of the main character. Pommer liked the idea as did the eventual director, Robert Weine. The writers — Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer — despised the idea. As Siegfried Kracauer put it in From Hitler to Caligari, “while the original story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene’s ‘Caligari’ glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness. A revolutionary film was thus turned into a conformist one.”

David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, states on the commentary to “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” that the records show that this story about Lang and “Caligari” isn’t true and Lang couldn’t possibly have changed the script in the short time he was involved with the production. Yet Kracauer bases his version of the “Caligari” story on an unpublished manuscript by Janowitz that states that Wiene was “in complete harmony with what Lang had planned.”

In Shell Shock Cinema, Anton Kaes paraphrases Seigfried Kracauer’s On Expressionism: Nature and Meaning of a Contemporary Movement and it puts Kracauer’s “Caligari” statement in perspective. “Expressionism,” writes Kaes, “for Kracauer was the outcry of those who felt enslaved by modernity’s instrumental reason. Realism, with its attention to detail, tacitly affirmed a stifling reality, while expressionism challenged the status quo by breaking with conventional practices of representation in the arts.”

In addition, Kaes writes that the original script of “Caligari” has been discovered and the framing device already existed in a somewhat different form. Kaes writes “Rather than suggesting that the ending negates the ostensibly revolutionary impulse of a story that leaves Caligari straitjacketed in a cell, we should instead highlight the unreliability of the narration and the ambiguity over who is insane and who is simulating.” This, he explains, “resonates” with the “psychiatric establishment” about “wartime madness.”

This debate about “Caligari” and expressionism has been going on since the film was released. In the Berliner Bürsen-Kurier in February 1920, Herbert Jhering wrote: “It is telling that Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz rendered their photoplay ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ expressionistically only because it is set in an insane asylum. It opposed the notion of a sick unreality to the notion of a healthy reality. In other words, impressionism concerns the arena in which one remains accountable, expressionism the arena in which one is unaccountable. Insanity becomes an excuse for an artistic idea.”

Welcome to the world of Weimar cinema (and film criticism regarding Fritz Lang), where authors and biographers recount untrue stories, disprove others and create whole new mythologies, metaphors and interpretations (based on questionable premises) about a handful of films. The result has been a group of films stranded in limbo and erroneously referenced to support other theories that are equally questionable. Lang and his fanciful history add just as much confusion as academics with agendas and critics with an ax to grid.

Whatever Lang or the authors of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” intended, Lang had a contract to direct another “Spiders” film and what could have been wasn’t. That’s the official story and it seems far more likely that Lang – who was never an expressionist and was at best “skeptical” of the movement – decided to go with directing the next Spiders film where he wouldn’t feel hemmed in by somebody else’s visual interpretation of the script. There is nothing concrete to support that idea although how Lang dealt with expressionism throughout his German career seems to explain it.

The Spiders: The Diamond Ship