By Matt Frey
When Carl Mayor and Hans Janowitz wrote the script for the German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, they probably had little idea of the major social impact it would have in both their country and ours. The film, with its thinly-veiled social commentary and odd, fairytale scenery, was released amidst a firestorm of both controversy and critical praise. When the dust of debate had finally settled, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari emerged as one of the most influential films of all time.
What had started as a simple silent movie had, quite literally, changed the course of horror films.
In 1921, a group of more than 2000 protesters descended on The Miller’s Theatre in Los Angeles. From noon to 8:30 p.m., the protesters demonstrated against The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the theater’s newest offering (Skal 37). They protested not because of the content of the film, but because of the film’s German origins. Many ex-soldiers were horrified that Americans would pay to see anything made in Germany, after the horrors of the first Great War that had ended just recently. (The parallels situation and the current conflict in Middle East are both obvious and beyond the aim of this work.)
Ironically, the film carried a potent anti-war sentiment in its stylistic use of lighting, its twisted, surreal imagery and sets, and its strange, metaphorical characters (Skal 41). Mayor and Janowitz’s script villainized the German government and blamed it for pulling the German people headlong into World War I. In the film, Cesare, a zombie-like man with piercing eyes, responds only to Dr. Caligari’s heinous commands to creep into people’s homes and kill them in the middle of the night. Cesare represents the German people, forced by a corrupt government – personified by Dr. Calagari – to murder anyone who gets in their way.
Had the protesters actually seen the film, they might have reversed their position; however, xenophobic postwar sentiment made that a virtual impossibility. But while the veterans of the Great War demonstrated against the film, many critics proclaimed Caligari a cinematic masterpiece in one way or another. “The musical setting for the production is superb,” commented one critic (Skal 44). The same reviewer was pleased with the film’s use of tinting and color. Variety magazine was impressed, but feared the film’s subject matter would hinder it, saying “it may catch the popular fancy, but it is morbid” (Skal 44). But perhaps the greatest compliment came from the film magazine Shadowland when it said that Caligari “has the authentic thrills and shocks of art” (Skal 46).
Alas, despite modest critical acclaim and public interest, the protesters eventually got their way. The Miller Theatre purged The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from their screen (Skal 46).
There is no doubt that Variety was correct in saying that Caligari is “morbid,” but it was certainly wrong in thinking that the film’s grim subject matter would repel audiences. As Tod Browning proved time and time again with his ghoulish circus acts, humanity is attracted to the macabre (Skal 25). Later, with films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and Freaks, as well as the aid of silent film star Lon Chaney, Browning helped to further the horror genre that Caligari effectively started (Skal 67). Indeed, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first true horror film as measured by today’s standards.
German promotional posters for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari declared “Du Musst Caligari Werden” – “You Will Become Caligari” (Skal 44). Little did anyone know how true that statement would become; Caligari’s influence extended far beyond films of the time. For example, comparisons between the shambling somnambulist Cesare and the 1931 film version of Frankenstein’s monster are both unavoidable and uncanny. The two monsters are tall and dark, and both move in strikingly similar ways. Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein film went on to invade many facets of American culture.
Although the idea of a single mass murderer sneaking into peoples’ bedrooms and slaughtering them in their sleep is nothing new, Caligari was an early example of this idea on celluloid – Cesare brought a face to the age old fear that has been recycled in countless films afterwards. The somnambulist, it seems, was a prototype for the horror cliché of the single, inhuman killing machine. John Carpenter’s Halloween gives us what is essentially the somnambulist in a white, almost featureless mask. Unspeaking and unfeeling, a killer named Michael Myers slays the teenage population of a small rural community one by one. Although Carpenter probably wasn’t thinking of the somnambulist when he created “The Shape” (as Myers is referred to in the film’s closing credits), the killer certainly matches Cesare’s archetype. Another example of this phenomenon is Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series. In the masked murder’s 2003 film, Freddy vs. Jason, Voorhees appears in his victim’s bedroom and viciously stabs him to death, finally snapping him in half as a brutal exclamation mark for his murderous sentence. Despite the wanton gore found in the Freddy vs. Jason scene, the basic elements of the Cesare archetype were all present. Give a somnambulist a hockey mask and you’ve got Jason Voorhees. Take it away, and you’ve got Caligari.
The reoccurring elements of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are not limited to film alone – the image of the lone madman his been consistently burned into society’s psyche through many different media outlets. In Capcom’s Resident Evil 3, a 1999 video game for Sony’s Playstation, Sega’s Dreamcast and later, Nintendo’s GameCube, the Ceasre-like creature Nemesis stalks the player throughout the game, consistantly bursting into whatever temporary haven he or she thinks they have found.
The greatest debt owed to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, however, is for catapulting horror films into the American mainstream. Without Caligari, horror films would likely exist today, yet not nearly in the same way. Perhaps Nosferatu, released in America a short time later, would have been able to do what Caligari did. Yet, would we still have Michael Myers? Would we still have Jason Voorhees or even Freddy Kruger of Nightmare on Elm Street fame? Possibly. But it’s an awfully long trip from Max Schreck’s wily vampire to John Carpenter’s elusive killing machine.
No one knew it at the time, but the German promotional poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari really did predict our future. As a society, we HAVE become Caligari. So much so, in fact, that we no longer realize what’s happened. It is said that art imitates life, but art also imitates other art. Movies, books, video games and more have borrowed parts of the Mayor and Janowitz’s film for so long, the original lines of ownership have blurred beyond recognition.
We have indeed become Caligari, but more importantly, Caligari has become us.
Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Faber and Faber, 1993.