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Today in History (1920): ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ Premieres in Germany

94 years ago, moviegoers in Germany were introduced to what would in years to come be hailed as one of the greatest, most influential horror films of the silent era. Step right up and get to know this classic German Expressionist masterpiece by director Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” right after the jump.

Movie poster via Open Culture

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)” was the brainchild of writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, drawing inspiration from their respective personal experiences. The character of Caligari was named after a character from a book that Mayer had read previously. They pitched their finished work to Erich Pommer, one of the most important figures of the film industry at the time, who was so sold to the idea that he immediately agreed to produce the film. In turn, Pommer tapped designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig to be in charge of the set design. Robert Wiene was actually Pommer’s second choice, as Fritz Lang coincidentally was working on “The Spiders (Die Spinnen)” then.

The main inspiration for “Caligari” is interesting, albeit grim. As told in the website Manifesto, many years before the idea for the movie was conceived, a girl caught Janowitz’s eye while he was at an amusement park in Hamburg. His fascination with the girl, who he was said to have described as “drunk with the happiness of life,” led him to follow her until she disappeared into the bushes. Mysteriously, the girl never reappeared; instead, a man emerged. The following day, Janowitz finally learned the name of the girl, Gertrude, and that she had been murdered in the park.

Movie still via Blogspot

Meanwhile, the model for the character of Caligari was culled from Mayer’s experience. Following his father’s suicide, Mayer, only 16 at the time, had no choice but to look after his younger brothers. The pressure caused him to seek psychiatric help later on, and for some reason Mayer hated his psychiatrist. Mayer was said to have written, “He represented the authoritative pressure that was brought to bear upon the powerless young man.”

Anyway, filming “Caligari” took more or less just a month, beginning in December 1919 and ending in January the following year. It starred Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt as Cesare, Freidrich Feher as Francis, Lil Dagover as Jane Olsen, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Alan, and Rudolf Lettinger as Dr. Olsen. “Caligari” was screened on this day in 1920 at Berlin’s Marmorhaus. So how did the audience of the time took it? Quite well, apparently.

Greeted by a stunned silence. . . Suddenly this stunned silence was shattered by applause, applause rising to a crescendo that broke into a thunderous outburst of frantic calling clapping, a raving audience, shouting with joy and acclamation. – Hans Janowitz, BFI Film Classics: Das Cabinet De Dr. Caligari – David Robinson

Trailer for “Dr. Caligari” (1989) via YouTube

In the subsequent decades, “Caligari” has been hailed not only as one of the precursors of the horror genre in film but also a major influence to countless directors worldwide. Its Expressionist style, with its “wild, distorted set design,” was lauded by international critics. It has been credited as the first to have introduced the “twist” ending in cinema, as well as the “first cinematographic representation of altered mental states.” “Caligari” has inspired many works in the 20th and 21st century not only in film but also in comics, theater, and music. Some notable examples include the films “The Cabinet of Caligari” (1962) by Roger Kay and “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez” (1991) by Peter Sellar, the opera “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1997) adapted by John Moran, the “semi-sequel” “Dr. Caligari” (1989) by Stephen Sayadian, the remake “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (2005) by David Lee Fisher, as well as a few comic books under DC Comics and by Neil Gaiman. In addition, the original “Caligari” was said to have also influenced the concept for recent box-office hits “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” (2009) and the book Shutter Island (2003) by Dennis Lehane (yes, the same written work which the 2010 Martin Scorsese film was based on).

Just recently, a newly digitally-restored version of “Caligari” premiered at the Berlinale Classics section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. The restoration as an effort by the Murnau-Stiftung in collaboration with the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv and L’Immagine Ritrovata – Film Restoration & Conservation and supported by the Bertelsmann. Indeed, “Caligari” is one of those rare “old” things that never get old, one that remains relevant even to the new generation of moviegoers and filmmakers.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” movie trailer via YouTube

A man named Francis relates a story about his best friend Alan and his fiancée Jane. Alan takes him to a fair where they meet Dr. Caligari, who exhibits a somnambulist, Cesare, that can predict the future. When Alan asks how long he has to live, Cesare says he has until dawn. The prophecy comes to pass, as Alan is murdered, and Cesare is a prime suspect. Cesare creeps into Jane’s bedroom and abducts her, running from the townspeople and finally dying of exhaustion. Meanwhile, the police discover a dummy in Cesare’s cabinet, while Caligari flees. Francis tracks Caligari to a mental asylum. He is the director! Or is he? – summary via THR Online

All information in this article were sourced from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on Wikipedia, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari on Manifesto, and a press release on the recent premiere of the digitally-restored version of Dr. Caligari on the Berlinale’s official website.

Further reading: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on Open Culture and German Expressionism on Wikipedia.

Like this article? Check out the Icons in Focus and Today in History series in the Lomography magazine!

written by chooolss

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