Du musst Caligari werden

Everything is crooked and claustrophobic in Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, everything is warped and twisted and at an impossible, indecent angle. The proportions are all off: everything is either cramped and hideously uncomfortable or too terrifyingly huge. People walk like inanimate dolls, like crabs, or scurry like insects. The doors, it is clear to see, are far too high, much too narrow, open reluctantly like they have a will of their own. They never were designed to be used for entrances or exits. Well not by human beings anyway. The mountain in the background is like a naïve or demented version of Bruegel done on psychedelic drugs. The town clerk sits high on a peg or a perch, like a bird of prey, and has to bend deep deep down to reach his desk. The entire movie unfolds like a particularly heavy and disturbing nightmare. Like something Lovecraft might have dreamed after a very nasty meal. What is really crooked, and manifested in every tiny detail, is the soul.

Very unpleasant.

Wholly delightful.

The entire story is told in flashback by the protagonist Francis. It all begins when a mysterious Dr. Caligari comes to town. The arrival coincides with a series of brutal murders. Caligari is a shady, sinister looking character, in manner and appearance something like a cross between a severely demented black bug and a secretive penguin with a nasty attitude, who carries with him in a coffin or box a somnambulist called Cesare. Cesare has been asleep all his life but Caligari has the power to awaken him. This he does at the fair, for money. Cesare has got a rare gift: he can foretell the future. However, anybody asking when he will die gets a terrifying answer: You will die before the dawn.

At the fair Francis's friend asks Cesare the ominous question and receives the inevitable answer. He is slaughtered during the night, stabbed most viciously, becoming the second victim in the murder series. It can be no mere coincidence. Francis puts two and two together and goes to the police. Then another man is arrested for the murders - he's caught red-handed trying to stab a woman. He pleads his innocence.

Francis is less than convinced of the man's guilt. He decides to stake out Caligari's house. Through the window he sees Caligari sitting by the somnolent Cesare. Cut to Jane, Francis's beloved, sleeping in her maidenly bed. Jane has caught Caligari's eye earlier in the day when she sought her father and Francis at the fair. Is she to be the crazed killer's third victim?

Something lurks in the shadows, creeps silently nearer. It's Cesare. He breaks into her chambers, knife in hand. He approaches her bed, his bulging eyes reflecting madness and bottomless horror. He raises his knife, ready to plunge it in her heart, ready to rip her to shreds like the previous victims, then he stops. He cannot do it. His face softens, he reaches for her hair, caresses her forehead. She wakes up and screams her lungs out. He grabs her, lifts her up and carries her away.

Jane's screams rouse the household. Cesare makes his getaway through the cubistic rooftops, lugging the unconscious Jane to Caligari's lair. The men-folk pursue him. Exhausted he falls on his knees and is forced to abandon Jane. He manages to give the angry mob the slip only to collapse, all his energy spent, in the marsh-like wilderness.

Back home Jane regains her consciousness. She shouts out the name of the culprit: "Cesare!" Francis explains that this is impossible. He's been watching Caligari all night and Cesare has been sleeping in his coffin. Francis and a couple of constables pay Caligari a visit anyway. They find that Cesare isn't sleeping in his coffin: it's an effigy, a lifesize doll. Caligari makes a run for it, Francis is hot on his trail. Caligari slips through a gate. It's an insane asylum. Francis enters and demands to know whether they have an inmate called Caligari. They do not. But perhaps the director knows, he returned earlier today. Frances is shown to the director's office. Francis enters the office, the director looks up - it's Dr. Caligari!

In blind panic he rushes out and explains the situation to the incredulous staff. While the director is away Francis and members of the staff enter his office. There they find incriminating evidence. The director is a specialist on somnambulism. In one book they find the description of another murder series; in the 18th century there was another Dr. Caligari and a similar series of murders. Similar? More like identical. In the director's journal they learn that it has long been his ambition to recreate the murders - and when a suitable somnambulist was admitted into the asylum the director saw his chance and grabbed it. Oh the joy, oh the ecstasy! Now, finally, he can realise his dream! Now at last he can unravel the psychiatric secrets of the original Caligari! Can a somnambulist be forced to commit murders against his will?

In order to penetrate Caligari's secrets he needs must become Caligari!

Francis and the Staff are aghast. Caligari is confronted and seized - his madness now impossible to conceal any longer. He's put in a strait-jacket and locked away.

Cut back the first scene with Francis telling his tale. He is revealed to be an inmate at the asylum. When the director of the asylum - obviously Dr. Caligari - shows himself, Frances bursts out: "You all think that I'm insane! It isn't true - it's the director who's insane!" He assaults the director and has to be forcibly restrained. He's placed in a strait-jacket and locked away - in the same cell Caligari in which was locked in his story.

The movie ends with a disturbing close-up of Caligari, who's just realised what is wrong with Francis and how to cure him.

The impact of the movie is surprisingly deep and complex. What ought to be phony and childish becomes somehow, quite mysteriously, terrifying. The acting is hammy; it only increases the effect. The settings are cardboard and at best clumsy - that only makes the nightmare more hallucinogenic. I can't explain it. I can only watch, mesmerised.

The way one watches a nightmare.

The ending (which supposedly was thought up by Fritz Lang; it wasn't in the original script) has been admonished a great deal. I find it only enhances the impact - it's one extra layer of madness in a totally mad universe. Nothing can be trusted. Nobody is sane. Especially not those who think they are. The strait-jacket is never far away.

In 1933 the movie was banned in Germany as "entartete Kunst", degenerate art. Which seems quite logical. Talking about lunacy.

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