Because this is such an important film, with so many aspects permeating it, it couldn’t be done justice in just one post. I could’ve made this post at least twice as long, but I tried to keep everything in a relative nutshell.
Writing and Development:
Dr. Caligari was written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, who both became pacifists in response to World War I. Their wartime experiences had a deep, direct influence on the script and its deeper themes. During the winter of 1918–19, they wrote the story, and incorporated many of their pre-war experiences as well.
The original plan hadn’t necessarily been to use an Expressionist style, but several directors felt a naturalistic style would ill-serve the story. Using painted canvases also saved money.
As Fate would have it, Dr. Caligari ended up becoming the very first German Expressionist film. This anti-realism film style was necessarily confined to Germany in the early years, since foreign films were banned in 1916 and many other countries had a similar ban on German films.
German Expressionism is a style you’re probably familiar with, even if you’re not aware of it as such. If you’ve seen some of the most famous German films of the 1920s and early 1930s, you’ve doubtless seen examples of this oeuvre. In Dr. Caligari, it’s expressed through the intertitles (misshapen lettering in green, blue, and brown); narrow, spiralling streets; tilted walls and windows; sharp angles; creepy painted sets; strategically-placed shadows and lights; and overall bizarre, unnatural dimensions. It gives the feeling of being trapped in a mad nightmare, and reinforces the theme of sanity vs. reality.
Dr. Caligari was shot over only two months, December 1919 and January 1920. To conform with German Expressionist style, it was all shot indoors. Since the studio had limited space, the sets are much smaller than they could’ve been, and some parts of the script had to be cut. For example, the fairground lacks typical features such as rides, sideshow booths, and barrel organs.
Like a number of other German Expressionist and Weimar films, Dr. Caligari has the major theme of the dangers of conformity and absolute, tyrannical authority. Totalitarianism in German government and history didn’t just start with the Nazis. Dr. Caligari represents this type of figure, as well as Germany’s historical tendencies and wartime government sending off soldiers to die. Cesare represents the everyday German citizen conditioned to obey no matter what, someone without any personality or opinions, completely dependent upon his master.
The perception of reality and sanity is another big theme. This seems like a fairly straightforward tale of horror, with an obvious antagonist and open-and-shut trail of evidence, until the plot twists start coming. Then it becomes harder and harder to discern just what’s really going on, who’s guilty and innocent, if we even know what’s reality anymore, or which character’s POV to believe. Similarly, there’s the theme of dualism inherent in every one of us, as several of the characters appear to be leading rather contradictory double lives.
Reception, Then and Now:
The critical and popular responses in 1920 varied, both in Germany and abroad. A number of German critics disliked the film for various reasons. Many people in the U.S. had negative responses, not only because it was so stylistically different from what they were used to, but also because it was still not long after the war, and anti-German sentiment still ran high. Some theatres had to pull screenings because of protests. However, many people in the U.S. loved the film, and it did very well in France.
Now, of course, it’s widely praised as a classic film, and served as an inspiration to many films which came afterwards, in horror, film noir, avant-garde, and art films.
Conrad Veidt, A Righteous Gentile!
Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893–3 April 1943), who plays Cesare, was one of the two stars of this film who later escaped the Nazis and found work in Hollywood. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Alan) fled because he was gay, and Veidt fled because his new wife, Ilona Prager, was Jewish. Even prior to his third and final marriage (which lasted till his death), he’d been extremely anti-Nazi.
Veidt gave a huge chunk of his fortune to Great Britain to help the war effort, and fled to England with his bride one week after their marriage in 1933. He finally became fluent in English, which he’d failed to master while living and working in Hollywood in the late Twenties. In 1938, he became a British subject, and starred in anti-Nazi films. Several of the films he made during this period were in his third language, French.
In 1941, he and his wife moved to Hollywood to help with the British effort to make anti-Nazi films in the hopes of finally ending U.S. neutrality and isolationism. Before he’d left England, he gave his life savings to the British government to help with the war effort. Since he knew he’d probably be typecast as a Nazi, due to his German accent, he put a clause in his contract specifying he only play villains. He didn’t want anyone to think Nazis were harmless or that he supported such a foul ideology.
Conrad Veidt was a beautiful example of a Righteous Gentile and proof that not all Germans were Nazis.