The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari
(1919)


"...for he had completely enslaved to his will, a somnambulist, and compelled him to carry outhis fantastic schemes, and by means of a dummy, the exact likeness of Cesare which he kept in a chest - he was able to divert any suspicion that might fall on the somnambulist."

Directed in 1919 by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of murder and intrigue set in a small German town of Holstenwall. Francis (Friedrich Feher), our narrator, is a student who makes the near-fatal error of attending a carnival with his best friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich).

At the fair, our two lads decide to visit the stand of Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus), an embittered small man who advertises a somnambulist by the name of Cesare (Conrad Veidt - dressed head to toe in black. My hero!) Cesare, prodded from his slumber, answers Alan's burning question: "How long will I live?" with: "You will die tomorrow" (hey, ask a stupid question...)

Holstenwall Carnival Sideshow Caligari and Cesare

Coincidentally, Alan is murdered that night.

Now Francis, no fool, figures things might not be on the up-and-up with the good doctor and his sexy black-clad accomplice. He visits Caligari's house and sees the kindly sight of Dr. Caligari feeding Cesare broth. Hardly anything incriminating. More to the point, with Alan out of the picture, Francis now has exclusive dating rights to the beautiful Jane (Lil Dagover).

Meanwhile, another Holstenwall murder has occurred and Jane's father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolph Lettinger) has disappeared. Jane decides to visit the fair to see if she can find clues to his whereabouts. Oddly enough, the only booth that seems to be open is that of Dr. Caligari. Caligari invites Jane in and shows off his prize possession, Cesare in the coffin. They both ogle her for a while before she leaves in horror (took her long enough). And, since it is a silent film, Dr. Caligari and Cesare never really talk to her - they just sit and stare with their fantastically made-up eyes. Strange, eh? And they never answered her question about dear old Dad...

Come into my parlour... Those fantastically made-up eyes

Later that night (avoid night at all costs in horror films), Cesare rises from his coffin and starts stalking Jane with a shiny knife. Wait a minute! That was the weapon used to kill Alan! The suspense thickens...

Jane wakes up and is understandably upset to see this skinny guy in a black unitard standing over her with a knife while she sleeps (although, since it's Conrad Veidt, no one feels too sorry for her). She faints and is now totally at the whim of Cesare, a guy who's already killed one of her lovers. Nice going, Jane!

Cesare stalking Jane Love at first sight

Lucky for her, Cesare falls in love with her prone form and refuses to kill her. In good old monster movie fashion, he throws her over his shoulder and heads for the hills. Unfortunately, the movie takes a surprisingly literal turn - Cesare suffers a massive heart attack from carrying Jane, drops her, and takes a headlong plunge down the mountain, splatting on the bottom. Sniff. No more Cesare.

The townsfolk finally catch up with Jane (somehow a thin guy carrying about 130 lbs of dead weight managed to keep ahead of them on the narrow, rocky incline. The townsfolk aren't too useful). Jane has survived the ordeal marvelously and is eager to head to town to condemn Dr. Caligari. Once in town, Jane and the townsfolk run into Francis, who insists that it couldn't have been Cesare who kidnapped Jane - he's been spying on the Caligari house and has seen Cesare sleeping the night away, under Dr. Caligari's watchful eye.

Jane, who's beginning to suspect that Francis is a schmuck, insists that it was Cesare who abducted her. The townsfolk run over to Caligari's house, throw open the coffin and remove the clever stuffed dummy that Dr. Caligari placed there while Cesare was on his killing spree (hey, it fooled Francis). Dr. Caligari takes advantage of the townsfolk's ignorance once again, and escapes while everyone is looking at the dummy (Cesare, not Francis).

Caligari watching (fake) Cesare Cesare, the dummy & Francis

Francis, who seems almost astoundingly incompetent, decides to find Dr. Caligari on his own. He reasons that the Doctor might have escaped from an insane asylum, so he pays a visit to the local one (right near the carnival - groovy!), where the interns tell him that he'll have to see the head honcho. They send him upstairs to meet (dum-dum-dum)...

DR. CALIGARI!!!!

Dr. Caligari is the head of the insane asylum! He fooled them all! Francis - Jane - the townsfolk! They probably should have paid more attention to the "Dr." part of his name. Francis manages to back out of the office hurriedly, and Dr. Caligari is kind enough to pretend he doesn't recognize Francis.

Later that night, Francis returns to the asylum and reads through Caligari's journals (hey, what's a little invasion of privacy between friends?)

Turns out, there was a mountebank named 'Caligari' in 1612, who ran around with a somnambulist that he trained to commit murder. Our Dr. Caligari thought it would be a good test (he's a doctor, you see) to see if he could make a patient of his commit murder. As luck would have it, Cesare was admitted to his asylum at the same time. So Caligari threw away the profitable, safe career of Head of the Asylum and took on the more garish, flashy dress of circus performer\murderer. And succeeded nicely. Until now.

Meanwhile, the townsfolk have found Cesare's corpse and brought it back to the asylum (and they think Caligari is sick? Sheesh - at least he wasn't exhuming corpses for laughs). Dr. Caligari eventually awakens and is bummed to see Cesare lying dead, propped up in his office. Caligari weeps over Cesare while the attendants gleefully handcuff their former employer and toss him in a cell (which leads me to wonder who they're planning on having sign future paychecks).

Poor Cesare Goodbye, Mr. Caligari

Good triumphs over evil! Francis saves the day!

Odder still, the story isn't done here. The above portion was, more or less, the story that Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer wrote (being somewhat disgusted with people in power at the time). Fortunately, everyone loved the story. Unfortunately, the story was altered and a framing device was added. The framing device goes something like this:

Francis is sitting with an odd, old man on a bench. He sees a spacey Jane walk by, which reminds him of a story...

Insert complete story here.

Once Francis completes his tale, they return to the asylum where they see Cesare alive, gently stroking a flower and Jane off in la-la land, pretending that she's a queen. Dr. Caligari comes down the stairs, and Francis goes wild ("That's the guy I was telling you about! Arrest him"). The attendants grab Francis instead, suit him up with a form-fitting straight jacket, and throw him in one of the handy cells.

Dr. Caligari removes his glasses, looking more kindly than he has all movie, and muses "Strange, he thinks I'm Dr. Caligari. But he will be cured. Now that I know his problem, he'll be cured."

Francis and an odd, old man Now that I know his problem, he'll be cured

I believe the nicest thing about the framing device (which appalled the original writers, as it was never their intention to portray Dr. Caligari in a kindlier light) is its ambiguity. For example, we never *do* see Alan's original murderer. Is it possible that Francis killed Alan and blamed the murder on Dr. Caligari? He did win Jane the flake, afterwards, and murders have been committed for much less.

Furthermore, I'm none too sure that the kindly doctor isn't planning a "permanent" cure for Francis....

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