Cabinets of Curiosity

05 November 2021

LUMI programmer Michael McConway discusses the classic horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Cabinets of Curiosity

Cowering in the stalls of the QFT cinema screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with my fellow LUMI theatregoers, who had paid their fare for an ethereal showing of the blueprint of the horror genre, I couldn’t help but wonder how unsettling this film must have been for audiences at the time. Using the British Newspaper Library Online, I was disappointed to find little evidence of Belfast audiences viewing the picture in the 1920s.

Yet what I did find was far more intriguing. On Saturday 18th February 1939, The Belfast Telegraph reported that the Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland had enjoyed a “film-night” presentation. Among the unremarkable reels of educational films and forgotten pictures featuring screen stars of the day was the very same Caligari..

“Perhaps the most important feature was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, lent by the Belfast Film Society, a film notable for its unusual treatment and background, which tells the dream conceived in the brain of a lunatic and the depredations of a somnambulist,” read the article.

Though we had shared the same viewing experience, context is everything. In the neighbouring newsprint columns, reports spoke of the German Motor Industry reorganisation under Goering’s Four Year Plan to rearm the German economy, with a correspondent from the Berlin Motor Show describing the innovation of the German synthetic rubber Buna. How intriguing it would be to rewatch Caligari with this group in 1939. As war loomed in Europe, a small group of young people in Belfast watched the protagonist Franzis (Friedrich Fehér) make the first discovery in a series of narrative twists. The authoritarian asylum director, Caligari (Werner Krauss), has reinterpreted the occult values in an 18th Century manuscript to exert his will over Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a tragic, haunting somnambulist.

Caligari is the charismatic cult authoritarian figure, Cesare, weak-willed and conditioned, is symbolic of the German masses. Just as Hitler drew on the occultish tradition of anti-semitism in Europe to provide an outsider group of “others” to rally against with his cries of bread and work in depression era Weimar Germany, so scriptwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer anticipate a future world of distorted values with the figure of Dr. Caligari.

The claustrophobic, disorientating effect of the set design is often attributed to German expressionism. Yet the minimalistic sets were partly inspired by necessity; with the post-war economic depression and war reparations crisis, director Robert Wiene was forced to shoot the picture with confined studio space, while also contending with the electricity rationing that blighted homes and businesses across Germany. The expressionist set design offers a heightened, stylised experience that renders the inner psychological states of the characters outwardly visible, with the sharp angles and two-dimensional sets bringing expressionism to the cinema going masses.

Caligari marks the debut of several horror tropes we are now all too familiar with. The narrative twists and flashbacks which frame the picture are now a staple of the genre, with the asylum setting revisited by classics including the Amicus productions portmanteau chiller Asylum (1972) directed by Roy Ward Baker. The Carnivalesque opener where Caligari introduces his cabinet of curiosity is said to have sprung from the imagination of writer Hans Janowitz, who encountered a shadowy suspected murderer at a fairground in rural Germany. The carnivalesque theme would later inspire the exploits of showman Dr. Diabolo as portrayed in the Amicus anthology directed by Freddie Francis, Torture Garden (1967). Opinions diverge as to whether the twist ending was originated by Janowitz and Mayer or tagged on by Wiene to make the picture commercially viable, but whatever its providence, it is a striking reminder of the cyclical tenure of authoritarianism and the readiness of those in authority to dismiss our deep-seated fears and concerns as delusional.

What really makes this silent picture is the performances. No exposure to the stylised lengthy text captions of the era can take away from the central performances of Krauss as Caligari and Veidt as Cesare. The moment that Cesare opens his eyes for the first time is one of the most unforgettable close ups ever filmed. Future horror creations from Boris Karloff’s Monster in Frankenstein (1931) to Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) would follow in Veidt’s footsteps. Robert Wiene would go on to originate the concept of body horror in The Hands of Orlac (1924), a film that would build on the expressionist motifs of Caligari with a tale concerning a concert pianist injured in a railway crash who suspects that because of a transplant he has acquired murderous intent. Veidt would go on to portray the antagonistic Luftwaffe Officer Major Strasser in the iconic wartime picture Casablanca.

What will be the next LUMI screening? Something for the dark nights perhaps? One thing is for certain. No matter what we pick to show from the past, you can be sure that another group have seen it somewhere in Belfast, perhaps even in the QFT itself, through the context of a different era. Caligari really innovates the idea that a horror movie should refract and reflect the horrors and concerns of the present day and predict those of the future. And after just over a century, it still remains the blueprint.