The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a silent, tinted black and white film that was directed by Robert Weine and released February 26, 1920 in Germany and March 19, 1921 in the Unites States. The movie was written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz and stared Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Fredrich Feher. Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer produced this expressionist film, which is thought to be one of the world’s first horror movies. In this film, a hypnotist utilizes a somnambulist to commit a series of murders. Post World War I, the movie portrays themes of brutal and irrational authority with Dr. Caligari identifying as the government during times of war and the somnambulist as the conditioned, brainwashed soldier. Through the lens of boundaries and borders, this film elucidates the political climate of disillusionment and the distaste for war as well as isolationism in American culture.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released during a turbulent time period of change socially, culturally, economically and internationally. World War I had recently ended, women could now legally vote in the U.S. and fashion was becoming bolder in the wake of the roaring 20’s and sexual liberation. Most noteworthy, “The film industry and Hollywood skyrocketed in the 1920s” (Rosenberg, n.p.). This opened up a medium for artists to express how they felt in the wake of World War I and their disgust for the negative impacts it had brought on America and the world. Citizens were incensed about how they were allowed to be drug into a war by their government and sought to isolate and detach themselves as a form of proactive protection.
There are differing accounts to how the film was first perceived upon its release depending on the film critic. Stephen Brockmann, Anton Kaes and Kristin Thompsan orate that it was popular not only amongst the general audience but also highly praised in the cinema arena as well (gradesaver.com). This being said, many thought it was too artistic and nuanced for its time as some critics were distraught that it did not fit neatly into their set definitions of what a film should be. Most viewers notice the odd, stylistic landscape. The characters inhabit a jagged backdrop with crazy diagonal and geometric pathways and trees with spiky leaves and grass that resembles knives. This setting is meant to set the tone for the deception and madness the film captures. While the movie was well received in France, the United States faced conflicting opinions. On one hand, film critics praised it and were enthusiastic about this new kind of film but the general public in the U.S. was not as forgiving. Many protested the films release in America in the aftermath of World War I and anti-German import sentiment. Those concerned with “foreign invasion” attempted to ban the film from its initial release in the U.S. Despite the initial backlash and uproar, many at the time considered the film a success. It was not exceptionally popular when first released but is now considered a quintessential work of German expressionism. The original work did not receive any awards but a remake in 2005 garnered a few awards at horror movie festivals (IMDb).
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also plays into the fantasy of monsters and monster theory. The somnambulist Cesare, who has lived his whole life in a sleepy trance-like state, is hypnotized to perform acts of murder by Dr. Caligari. The somnambulist’s character is first publicized at a fair to amaze citizens in the beginning of the film as many are intrigued by his anomalous state of being. This plays into Cohen’s monster theory, “The refusal to participate in the classificatory ‘order of things’ is true of monsters generally: they are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration” (Cohen, p. 6). Many are mystified and jarred by the somnambulist’s existence since it is so abnormal and extraordinary. This “monstering” can also be applied to U.S. and German relations at the time, “The monster is the abjected fragment that enables the formation of all kinds of identities- personal, national, cultural… that align themselves to imbue meaning to the Us and Them behind every cultural mode of seeing” (Cohen, p. 19-20). The U.S. decided to not only monster Germany but other countries around the globe based on cultural and ideological differences as a means to isolate and protect themselves.
In summation, this film illustrates the American culture of political climate of isolationism and disillusionment at the time. The symbolism of Dr. Caligari and the somnambulist portray the disillusionment because people felt as if they could no longer trust their governments. The isolationism is prevalent through the protests of U.S. citizens to not show The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in America. The film also orates how monster theory is not only applicable to the film but that it is mirrored in a tangible, real way. The film offers us one aspect of the multi-faceted American culture during this time.
GradeSaver. “Reception | The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” GradeSaver. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Monster Culture (Seven Theses) by Jeffery Jerome Cohen
Rosenberg, Jordan. “Essay Topic- The Roaring Twenties.” HACK It! N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.