essay by

Nicole V. Gagné

The last month of 2023 has started off with a bang, thanks to a sensational December 1st screening in San Francisco of the silent German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, shown with live music performed by Sleepbomb – an exceptional art-rock score, totally in keeping with the atmosphere and sensibility of the film, played by Tim Gotch (bass, synth), Claire Hamard (vocals, keys), Charles Hernandez (guitar), Robert Johnson (drums), and Brown Hues (production). Promoted by the fine people at Larsen Associates, this sold-out performance at the venerable Balboa Theater marked the beginning of the 20th annual Another Hole in the Head film festival (AHITH), which specializes in contemporary independent horror/sci-fi/fantasy films. AHITH has been drawing enthusiastic crowds for years – and what a joy it was to see that enthusiasm shared by patrons young and old, all of whom came out to thrill to a horror film made more than 100 years ago!

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of Dr. Caligari, a wizened old professor, who performs at a German town fair with a somnambulist named Cesare, whom Caligari keeps in the eponymous two-door cabinet. Caligari declares that Cesare has been asleep his entire life but can be roused to answer questions regarding the past or the future, posed by anyone who has bought a ticket. Good buddies Franzis and Alan go to view Caligari and Cesare, and Alan asks the sleepwalker, “How long will I live?” Cesare’s reply is, “Until the break of day” – a prophecy that comes true, because later that night the entranced Cesare is sent forth by Caligari to murder Alan.

Caligari displays Cesare the somnambulist in his cabinet.

It’s the second mysterious murder to have gripped the town since Caligari’s arrival, and Franzis is determined to catch the killer. He watches Caligari’s wagon all night long, unaware that he is observing only a mannequin in the cabinet, and that Cesare is on the loose again. The somnambulist kidnaps Franzis’ beloved Jane, but villagers manage to rescue her as Franzis tracks Caligari back to his lair: a lunatic asylum where the chief physician is Caligari. The doctor’s diary reveals that he is using the sleepwalker to commit murders, and he is laced into a straitjacket and shut up in his own asylum.

But this nightmare tale also has a frame to it: a prologue in which Franzis tells another man that he has a strange story to relate, and an epilogue where Franzis is revealed to be a patient in that same madhouse, with Cesare and Jane also institutionalized and Caligari in charge. As Alan is laced into a straitjacket, Caligari insists that he now knows how to cure him.

Cesare kidnaps Jane

Writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer were dismayed that director Robert Wiene introduced this framing story – an addition made with the blessing of the legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang, who was initially scheduled to direct but had to step away due to another commitment. Respected film historian Siegfried Kracauer, in his essential study of early German cinema From Caligari to Hitler (1947), regarded this framing device as representing a need in the pre-Nazi German psyche to reject the concept of insane authority and believe instead that anyone who questions authority must be insane. And there is truth to this assertion.

But keep in mind that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a descent into madness from the first reel to the last. Shot completely within a studio, all its sets are stylized and grotesquely distorted, from interiors with bizarre angular architecture and drastic painted-on shadows to exterior landscapes of misshapen housetops, dreamlike topographies, and malignant flora. Wardrobe and makeup are equally disturbing; actors’ performances are also defined by varying degrees of hysteria.

Filmed in 1919, just after the horrors of the Great War had ended, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is today venerated as one of the principal examples of expressionist German filmmaking. Originally an art movement, championed in the late 1900s and early 1910s by such notable painters as Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, expressionism soon moved from the canvas and into German music, poetry, theater – and cinema. In whatever medium, expressionism seeks to articulate subjective and unconscious feelings and imagery that are usually kept hidden: darkness, irrationality, fear, ugliness, confusion, hallucination. Reality is heightened to extreme emotional pitches and severe distortions, marking a violent opposition to traditional notions of beauty and form.

Caligari is locked up in his own asylum.

Although the narrative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari offers a return to normalcy through a framing device that vindicates Caligari, the film itself is an unrelenting nightmare, in which both hero and villain are insane. When anyone thinks of Caligari, he’s not the sympathetic physician of the film’s closing shot but the mad doctor who shuffles about like a spider and places his enthralled and murderous somnambulist on display.

The artists responsible for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari wound up casting a substantial shadow on international cinema. Janowitz left film by the early 1920s, but Mayer went on to script classic films for the great director F.W. Murnau, both in Germany (The Last Laugh) and the States (Sunrise); he also collaborated on Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light. Wiene helmed such notable German silent films as I.N.R.I., dramatizing the life of Jesus; the horror tale The Hands of Orlac; and an acclaimed adaptation of Richard Strauss’ beloved comic opera Der Rosenkavalier. Actor Werner Krauss, unforgettable as the iconic Caligari, would also star in outstanding films by such master filmmakers as Murnau (Tartuffe), Paul Leni (Waxworks), and G.W. Pabst (Joyless StreetSecrets of a Soul), but he eventually embraced Nazism and demolished his career. Conrad Veidt, equally unforgettable and iconic as Cesare, was an anti-Nazi with a Jewish wife, who fled Germany and relocated first to England and then to the U.S., playing such immortal heavies as the sorcerer Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad and the Nazi officer Major Strasser in Casablanca.

All praise to AHITH and Sleepbomb for bringing new life to this expressionist classic – and disturbing the dreams of yet another generation of moviegoers!

Laura Albert

Laura Albert has won international acclaim for her fiction. Writing as JT LeRoy, she is the author of the best-selling novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and the novella Harold's End. Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, reissued by HarperCollins, have also been released as audiobooks by Blackstone Publishing. Laura Albert is the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig's feature documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Lynn Hershman Leeson's film The Ballad of JT LeRoy. She has written for The New York Times, The Forward, The London Times, Spin, Man About Town, Vogue, Film Comment, Interview, L'Équipe Sport&Style, Filmmaker, I-D, and others – more recently, the cover article for Man About Town and her reflections on fashion for VESTOJ. A writer for the HBO series "Deadwood," she also wrote the original script for Gus Van Sant's Elephant and was the film's Associate Producer. She has written the short films Radiance for Drew Lightfoot and ContentMode, and Dreams of Levitation and Warfare of Pageantry for Sharif Hamza and Nowness. For Tiempo de Literatura 2020's “The Narrative Universe of Laura Albert,” she engaged in a wide-ranging ZOOM conversation with Fernanda Melchor, International Booker Prize Shortlist author for her acclaimed novel Hurricane Season. Twitter: @lauraalbert Instagram: @laura_albert