Expressionist explosion

Two icons: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau take the stage

The early 1920’s saw the rise of German expressionist horror movies’ great masters. Although Paul Wegener had already made forays into the horrific and expressionist genres, it wasn’t until 1919 that it found its definitive form with a film that would forever change the history of cinema, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

The man behind this film was Robert Wiene (27 April 1873–16 June 1938), son of succesful theatre actor Carl Wiene. After studies in law and and acting on stage he began to work on films.

The birth of Dr Caligari
After WWI writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer looked for a new medium to use as a vessel for a new type of artistic expression – visual storytelling that necessitated collaboration between writers and painters, cameramen, actors, directors. They felt that film was the ideal medium through which to both call attention to the emerging pacifism in postwar Germany and exhibit radical anti-bourgeois art.

As both of them were impressed with Paul Wegener’s work, they decided to write a horror film. The story revolvs around a sideshow hypnotist called Caligari and his frightening somnambulist Cesare, who commits terrible murders by his master’s will. It is later discovered that Dr Caligari is in fact the same man as the director of an insane asylum. The good doctor is obsessed with a story about a man called Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare in late 18th century Italy. In the end he proves his insanity and is himself put in the insane asylum.

The plot here seems to be in line with a very deep distrust of authorities that flourished in Germany after WWI – the director of the asylum is actually the one who is insane. This statement was not lost on the producers who nevertheless thought it to be a bit too bold. So they insisted that the script be changed. In the finished film the ending reveals that everything is actually the fantasy of a madman in an asylum – who believes his doctor to be a murderer. This change also altered the way the movie was told. The movie now begins with the leading man Francis telling the beginning of the story, and the whole plot is actually a flashback – until we return to Francis in the end and it is revealed that he is actually the one sitting in the yard of a mental asylum. In a sense it makes the film even more creepy, since the audience discovers it has been looking at the antics of a madman, as if it were true reality. The writers, nevertheless, might have felt that their social statement got a bit watered.

The producer initially wanted master director Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M, The Big Heat, Dr Mabuse, etc) to make the movie, but since he was otherwise occupied, Wiene got the job.

Introducing Mr Veidt

Although the story is an utterly creepy one, the reason why the film made such an impact was its visual style. Wiene and the writers had it in their minds to make a completely unrealistic set design, much like one would on a theatre stage. In addition to this, everthing was to be tilted, twisted and out of proportion. Lights and shadows were painted directly on the sets, the actors rarely moved about in realistic scenes and the viewer felt as if they had stepped directly into a surrealistic painting. The credit for this work goes to designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig.

The other reason to the film’s success was the incredible acting by Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt who played Caligari and Cesare. The image of the crazy Dr Caligari with his unkempt hair and wild eyes has been reproduced hundreds of times. The most startling performance is given by Veidt as Cesare, his chilling and slightly sad interpretation of the somnambulist had a scary sex appeal that has later been made into their own by millions of goth and emo crowds all over the world – Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands and Brandon Lee in The Crow are direct descandants.


Father of a Vampire
Writers Janowitz and Mayer collaborated yet another time in 1920 with Conrad Veidt, this time with the later-to-be icon F.W. Murnau (of Nosferatu and Sunrise fame) in a movie called Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus). This was a rewrite of the popular Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-story. The film is now a so called “lost film”, although scripts and production notes have survived. On the international market the film was bogged by the fact that another Jekyll/Hyde film was released in USA, with movie star John Barrymore in one of his most memorable roles. The story, however, differs greatly from the original novel, although it was released as “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in the UK.

Robert Wiene made another film in 1920 called Genuine (also Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire and Genuine, the tragedy of a strange house). Vampire here refers to Vamp or Femme Fatale, not bloodsucker. It follows the bizarre story of a man who buys a former occult priestess from a slave market and locks her into his basement, where she enchants men. The film was widely seen as an attempt to re-use the ideas of Caligari, but with lesser result. The film is available only in a 43 minutes long compressed version, the whole film is being kept behind locks in Germany.

Wiene still made two very influential films in the expressionistic field, Raskolnikov (based on Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment) and the eerie Hands of Orlac.

The impact of the expressionistic movement on films, and the impact of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is unsurpassable. The dark, gothic buidlings and the striking contrasts between light and shadow would influence the whole horror genre forever. It is peculiar that very few modern films, despite the astronomic advances in special effects, have stretched the envelope in the set designs as far as Caligari. If we talk mainstream movies, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton seem to be among the few directors with the guts to push the audience as far as Wiene and his crew did.

Without films such as Caligari and Der Januskopf, there would have been no Nosferatu, no Faust and no Metropolis. And without them, no Dracula or Frankenstein. Certainly no vampire novels or goth rock, either.

1920 was a significant year for horror films in Germany, since it also saw the release of Paul Wegener’s third Golem film, the only one that is available today. But as mentioned earlier, things were also stirring in the US of A, where two of the great actors in American cinema, John Barrymore and Lon Chaney, were doing their first horror films that same year. In Russia an expressionist sci-fi film called Aelita was made and film makers in Sweden, Austria, Italy and France were waking up to the new genre. But more of that in my next update!