Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Caligari

I am NOT a crook…

Ever feel as though the world in which you live is an illusion? An implanted memory, maybe, put there by space aliens who resemble pink neon light? An elaborate model that gets dismantled behind you every time you exit a room or move to another city? Or have you made yourself one of those little beanies of aluminum foil so the Twylobites can’t broadcast their evil suggestions directly into your brain? Wait! It isn’t the Twylobites, it’s the United States Military! Or the Lizard People!  And no one will believe you…

In 1919, long before Philip K. Dick was born, the German Expressionists were riffing on the same themes of paranoia and shifting realities with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In its dreamlike opening scene, two men are sitting in a garden wherein light and darkness take on mass like an image on a psychedelic poster. The older man, with owl-staring eyes, says that spirits are all around us; they have driven him from hearth and home, wife and children. A woman glides by like a ghost. The younger man, Francis, identifies her as his fiancée Jane. He proceeds to tell a macabre story…

The scene shifts to the garret room of a young student, Alan, who is sunk in gloom until he discovers that a traveling fair has come to his mountain village. He runs off and tells his best friend Francis, and they resolve to go to the fair the next day. Next we see the mountebank Dr. Caligari, going to the village clerk to apply for an exhibition permit.

As played by actor Werner Krauss, Caligari is malevolence personified: fat, shabby, stooping, unwashed, curiously disturbing. He wears white gloves with three black lines across the backs, just like those worn by Mickey Mouse (I’m not kidding; check out the picture). In his old-time showman’s getup he looks like an evil W.C. Fields… well, an evil-er W.C. Fields. The clerk is rude to him, and we see a vengeful gleam in Caligari’s eyes. The next morning the clerk is found dead in his bed, stabbed by persons unknown. 

Cut to Francis and Alan going to the fair. Caligari is hawking his exhibit, the Somnambulist Cesare. Cesare is a living corpse with the gift of prophecy. Francis and Alan file into the tent to watch as Cesare is roused to a state of trancelike awareness. The camera pulls in for a tight closeup of Cesare. Clearly Tim Burton was exposed to this film at an early age—possibly during his fetal development—because Cesare is a rail-thin, white-faced boy with a mop of black hair, exactly like so many of the heroes in Burton’s films. Slowly, Cesare opens sunken and black-shadowed eyes. Caligari challenges the audience to ask Cesare any question at all. Alan, the idiot, asks how long he has to live. Cesare tells him he will live until daybreak. 

He’s found dead in his bed next day, of course, stabbed by Cesare, who has crept into his house like a shadow and slipped away again. Francis suspects Caligari of having sent Cesare to commit the murder, and spends most of the rest of the film running around trying to convince the police to arrest Caligari. Cesare is sent to murder Francis’s girlfriend Jane, but carries her off instead, leading the villagers a chase through the distorted geometries of the landscape. Finally—not being in the best physical shape after having slept for twenty-three years—he keels over with heart failure and the girl escapes. Francis, meanwhile, spots Caligari running to hide in the local lunatic asylum. It turns out that Caligari is the director of the asylum, but—having become obsessed with the case history of an 18th-century mountebank and murderer who toured Europe with a somnambulist—he has flipped out and begun living his obsession.

All is revealed, and Caligari is forced into a straitjacket and dragged screaming to a cell in his own asylum. But then!

We’re back in the asylum, where Francis begs Jane to finally marry him. Jane, however, is on another planet and tells him that queens, alas, are not free to follow their hearts. And there in the background is Cesare, alive and harmlessly mooning over what looks like a small bouquet. And then in comes the asylum’s director, and it’s Caligari, looking bland, benign and clean. Francis has screaming hysterics and, in a scene exactly paralleling the previous ending, is straitjacketed and dragged into a cell. Aha, says the good doctor, this poor man thinks that I am the notorious Caligari! Well, now I can begin to treat him for his delusion.


The film is brilliant, such a straightforward masterpiece that one is surprised to learn how haphazardly its elements fell into place. The Expressionist sets, with their weird angles and painted shadows, were created because the Decla-Bioscop studios couldn’t afford anything more elaborate on their postwar budget. Of the two writers, pacifist Carl Mayer had undergone traumatic sessions with a military psychiatrist; Hans Janowitz had inadvertently witnessed a murder during a nocturnal walk in a park, without realizing what he’d seen until a girl’s body was found the following day. The framing device providing the twist ending wasn’t even in the original script! The producers felt that audiences would be unacceptably alarmed unless they were assured at the end that the murders had only happened in Francis’s mind. And of course their twist ending only imposed an even more sinister layer of meaning on the story.     

After all, we know that the shadows aren’t real. There’s nothing to be afraid of! Trust your politicians. Trust your policemen. And let the kindly doctor treat your delusions…


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