Caligari’s Controversial “Bookend” Scenes: Yea Or Nay?

In October, the cinephile’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of German Expressionism. Accordingly, I thought we’d discuss an intriguing topic–those “bookend” scenes (otherwise known as a “frame story”) from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

If you haven’t seen Caligari, be forewarned now that this post discusses spoilers–nay, it depends on spoilers. So if you haven’t gotten around to watching one of the most important films of the 20th century, well…ya oughta!

If you’re already familiar with Caligari (and feel free to check out my review), you’ll recall that it’s mainly told from the point of view of Francis, who lives in the small town of Holstenwall. Francis and his friend Alan see the strange Dr. Caligari’s sideshow act at a fair, where a quasi-mystical somnambulist named Cesare answers questions from the audience. Later, Alan is murdered and Francis’s fiancee Jane is nearly kidnapped. Suspecting Dr. Caligari, Francis and the police investigate and discover that this lunatic “doctor” is, in fact, running an insane asylum. We discover the doctor had been trying to “become ‘Caligari,'” an 18th century mystic who had sleepwalkers commit murders.

Werner Krauss in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

But this isn’t the biggest, most M. Night Shyamalan-ish twist–that comes in the form of the bookend scenes. In the beginning, Francis is talking with an old man on a bench, and they see Jane wandering in an apparent state of shock. Francis says, “what she and I have lived through is stranger still than what you have lived through…” and he begins to tell the tale of encountering Dr. Caligari, now all part of a giant flashback. In the end, we cut back to Francis and the old man, and we realize they’re inmates of an insane asylum (it’s not so clear in the beginning). And wouldn’t you know it, another inmate looks suspiciously like the Cesare of Francis’s story. And the equally-familiar asylum director, a kindly man, is attacked by the increasingly frenzied Francis, who screams “he is Caligari, Caligari, Caligari!” Francis is put in a straightjacket, and the asylum director declares, “at last I understand his delusion. He thinks I am that mystic Caligari! Now I know exactly how to cure him!” And that, my friends, is The End.

Lil Dagover, Friedrich Feher, and Conrad Veidt in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

At the time Caligari was released, it was generally well received and was especially popular in Germany. Critics mainly discussed its fearless art design and the possibilities it presented for cinema’s future. It was seen as a true “art film,” and (tellingly) marketed in the U.S. as a “thrilling fantastic story” and a “mystery thriller.”

Nowadays, it seems like the bookend scenes are discussed just as often as the art design. Everyone loves a twist ending, and the idea that this wildly stylized horror story might be even less anchored in reality than we thought is an attention grabber. Of course, nowadays the “twist” isn’t that surprising (let’s just say we’ve been there and done that), but we forgive that since Caligari‘s a century old. Overall, the film’s message seems to be about madness and its uneasy relationship with reality. But was it, really?

Lil Dagover, Werner Krauss, and Conrad Veidt in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Take the bookend scenes away, and Caligari has a decidedly bleak viewpoint. A strident indictment of power-mad authority, it was influenced by the tragedies of World War I and social upheaval in post-war Germany. Authority is personified by Dr. Caligari, so obsessed with an idea that he’s willing to use an innocent somnambulist as a pawn. The Everyman is Cesare, forced beyond his will to commit heinous crimes. The comparisons with, say, trench warfare where so many young men were sent “over the top,” determined by far-off authorities with pins and maps, are easy to make. It’s also easy to compare the Expressionist caricature of Dr. Caligari with other examples of abusive authority. Once a tyrannical Authority becomes obsessed with a dangerous idea, innocent Everymen suffer for its consequences.

Now, with all this in mind, the bookend scenes are a bit of a head-scratcher. If critique of authority is the film’s goal, why backtrack and assure us it was all just a madman’s fantasy? Why point at the audience and say “ha! Fooled ya”?

Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, which famously argued that German Expressionism provided clues to the subconscious state of German society and had premonitions of Hitler’s rise, felt the bookend scenes did indeed subvert the film–“A revolutionary film was thus turned into a conformist one.” And that subversion didn’t even make sense. If the odd Expressionist surroundings were a reflection of Francis’s mental state, than why did the “normal” scenes look Expressionist too? Were the sets really just ultra-modern decoration?

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

As we ponder all this, it helps to know two things about the bookend scenes: a) the writers of Caligari, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowicz, claimed the scenes were added at the last minute by the studio and that they nearly protested the finished film, and b), this isn’t 100% true. For decades the writers’ claims were taken for granted, until it was discovered that Werner Krause (who played Dr. Caligari) still had his copy of the script. It was bought by the Deutsche Kinemathek in the ’70s, and in 1995 a transcription was finally made public, revealing that Caligari really did have some kind of “frame story” all along.

However–this frame story was very different from the mind-bending scenes we know today, simply involving Francis hosting a party where he’s prompted to tell his strange tale from 20 years back. Any extra end scene is apparently missing, if it existed at all. Some critics have argued that this disproves Kracauer’s theories, however, the frame story just introduces the horror plot that follows, while the filmed bookend scenes actually change the plot itself. Interestingly, Mayer and Janowicz seemed less disturbed by the changes at the time than they claimed to be in retrospect (although it’s hard to pin down their exact feelings since so many conflicting stories swirl around Caligari’s production).

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

I would argue that Caligari is much more powerful without the bookend scenes. It’s strong as a straightforward horror story, with a theme that was extremely relevant at a time when the “Old World” was beginning to vanish and German society was reckoning with post-war chaos. The sets effectively echo both horror and that chaos–indeed, I’d say Caligari was a product of its particular time, not ahead of its time (as some might assume).

The bookend themes not only distract from this theme, but serve merely to explain it away as a feverish fantasy, yet another exercise in illustrating “madness.” Have you noticed how many dramas and horror films are vaguely explained as revolving around “madness”? It’s certainly a fascinating theme when used effectively, such as in Psycho or The Haunting. But are all intense films merely about insanity, or are we just used to falling back on this handy explanation without really pondering what it means? Replace “madness” with “clinically recognized mental illness” and you might see what I mean.

Ludwig Rex in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

But perhaps I also agree with Kracauer on one key point–that fact that the bookend scenes were added at all does show how Weimar Germany was “wavering between tyranny and chaos.” Too strident of an anti-authority theme would perhaps cause discomfort–much better to go back to the safety of regular life under authority’s guiding hand. Perhaps there was a presentiment of the tyranny to come, after all. Kracauer pointed out:

That the two authors selected a fair with its liberties as contrast to the oppressions of Caligari betrays the flaw in their revolutionary aspirations. Much as they longed for freedom, they were apparently incapable of imagining its contours. There is something Bohemian in their conception; it seems the product of naive idealism rather than true insight. 

So what do you think? Do you like Caligari’s bookend scenes? Do you think they deepen the experience of the film, or do you think they distract from its apparent purpose? Do you think they’re not that big a deal, or do you feel they’re essential? Yea or nay? Let me know below!

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

 

 

 

20 thoughts on “Caligari’s Controversial “Bookend” Scenes: Yea Or Nay?

  1. I think the scenes are just as revolutionary as the rest of the film. It’s a work of modernism, which involved experimentation and often subverting audience expectations. The ending does just that-it essentially pulls the rug out from under the audience. “You thought it was that, but it’s actually THIS.”

    Thoroughly modern 😉

    • That’s a good point about modernism–you may be on to something here. A twist ending does have something subversive about it, which is part of that avant-garde spirit. Although, one thing to consider is that twist endings weren’t a modern phenomenon (I looked it up out of curiosity, apparently one of the Arabian Nights tales is the first recorded “big twist ending”! That’s farther back than I thought).

  2. Fascinating discussion! Katie’s answer pretty much sums up my feelings on this as well. The frame does seem like an essential part to me, and I think that it does indeed pull the rug out from under the audience and enhance the unsettling qualities of the film; you’re left wondering what in fact is reality… And the odd fact of the sets being distorted in the frame as well (which I never really thought about)—could that point to *another* frame outside this frame?? Who knows… 😀

    I’m not sure how all this comports with the symbolic meanings vis-à-vis corrupt authority, etc. I guess the frame might distract from the intent, in that case. Actually, I might be a little skeptical about the level of symbolism that Kracauer sees in all this, anyway—but I’m in over my head there, so I can’t pronounce judgment; maybe he’s right. Anyway, an interesting thing to speculate about.

    • Well, it’s not just Kracauer’s interpretation we’re relying on–Mayer and Janowicz did insist CALIGARI was supposed to be symbolic of their anti-authority leanings. Although, they seemed to talk about this more in the years after the film was released. At any rate, it was definitely inspired by real life experiences they had that kept haunting them.

      Yeah, the bookend scenes might make more sense if they were filmed realistically–maybe. The themes of the main plot are still the most intriguing to me!

      Fun fact: the Expressionist look wasn’t Mayer and Janowicz’s idea–they actually wanted surrealist painter Alfred Kubin to design the sets. Look up his work, if you haven’t heard of him–now THAT would be a different movie!

      • Oh, my goodness…. :O I was only vaguely familiar with Kubin’s name and had never seen any of his work. What a strange and explosively creative force he was! Kind of a modern-day Breugel-ish or maybe Bosch-ish thing going on there…. It would have been amazing to see what he would have done with the film, though I can’t picture it without the sets it ended up with. Those angles and distortions, even those jagged title fonts, seem so inherently a part of the story, don’t they?

        • They do! It’s impossible to imagine it without all that Expressionism. But man, I’d like to see ANY kind of film with Kubin helming the art design…! Surrealist art has always fascinated me, and he was just a master. Some of his images almost seem familiar, like you’d already seen them in a dream…

  3. Although I have seen Caligari, twice, I haven’t seen it in a while, and I actually don’t remember the framing structure! I remember the first scene, when they see her walking…..it’s a bit of a blur now…..I should probably rewatch it and then re-read the article! I was going to watch “Haxan” but…..now you got me leaning “Caligari”.

    But if your previous articles are anything to go by, then.I’ll just say, in advance: you’re probably 100% right!!!!! I trust that you are absolutely correct! lol.

    If I disagree, though, after having rewatched it…..you can sure I’ll be back, haunting this article like a Halloween ghost! 😀

  4. I don’t have a problem with them at all. It made for a nice twist thus is a provocative talking point for the more discerning viewer. Plus, when you consider how at the time (1919), Hollywood films pretty much went from A-B with few surprises, this was something brave and original, as others have already pointed out.

    That said, the film does work without them if you want a straight up spooky tale, but for me this goes to show how European cinema was far too clever and subversive for convention and why their output has remained so seminal and influential.

    Good post though! 🙂

    • Thank you sir! Probably the biggest reason these scenes don’t “sell” me is they seem more gimmicky to me than anything else. Plus, if you like plot twists, the main story already has a pretty darn good one (the reveal of Dr. Caligari’s actual job). Take the bookends away and there’s still surprises in store.

      You’ll find this interesting–CALIGARI was marketed in the U.S. as a “thriller” and a “mystery story”…one ad from Motion Picture News said it had “a trick ending that brings a laugh!” A LAUGH. Not sure that’s what our two dour CALIGARI writers were going for!

  5. Kracauer is USELESS! And the reason I claim that so vehemently, is that he simply wasn’t objective at all. He was a German jew and it was 1946 when he wrote that. So, understandably, he was traumatized. But the result is a huge confirmation bias. Because history isn’t teleological, and could have taken many other turns. It’s all very easy to see premonitions afterwards – usually the bible is a fertile ground for that – but no-one can predict the future BEFORE it happens.
    Meanwhile, toning down movies happened many times since (Blade Runner), and probably had already happened before, too.

    • Well, somewhat in Mr. Kracauer’s defense, his argument seems to be that the themes in German Expressionist films provide clues to the subconscious leanings of German society–what people were drawn to or regarded as important–and that these leanings help us understand why they would be attracted to a tyrannical authority. That’s what I’ve taken away from it, at any rate. He does get very passionate about his topic.

      We’re free to embrace his theories or regard them more critically, I’d say–they stir up interesting discussions either way!

  6. The first time I saw the film, I didn’t understand the frame story with the bookends. I thought it was all just one story, and I was a bit confused as to what was actually going on. (Sometimes it takes a few viewings for something to “click” for me, admittedly… I’m not always so bright, ha.)

    I agree with ManInBlack. Sure, the twist story was not new, but with the “cut to the chase” predictability of most films, this put an interesting spin on the original story.

    What truly strikes me about the end in particular is how unconvinced I was that it the story wasn’t one more level of “meta”, so to speak. Did you see that sinister look in the asylum director’s eyes? It makes one wonder if the terror in Francis’s face as he lies there in a straight jacket isn’t coming from a completely clear head. That being said, the bookends aren’t gimmicky; they’re provoking.

    • You know, I think I had a similar reaction to the frame story during my first CALIGARI viewing–“Wait, what just happened exactly?” 😀 It didn’t help that the print was pretty bad, too. (I’ll never stop being thankful that a super crisp print turned up…!)

      It’s definitely more interesting to interpret the ending as uber-meta, although I’ll bet the studio didn’t have that in mind (my guess is they didn’t want the film to go TOO “out there,” for box office purposes). Krause just has a sinister vibe, the man was probably born with it!

  7. I find the framing scenes are fine and have no problem with them. Whether this was the first time it was done in a movie is debatable, but it has been done to death in the past 100 years of cinema. So when something is good it gets copied over and over. (Oh wait the Marvel movies) I have read that the framing story was a suggestion of Fritz Lang who saw a rough cut of the film at the studio.

    • I’ve heard that, too. Lang was apparently first choice for director, but bowed out because of his work on THE SPIDERS. He might’ve been the first one to suggest more of a “gotcha!” twist (and you probably know THE SPIDERS was…a serial).

      (I really enjoy the Marvel movies, btw–escapist fun entwined with the showdown of good vs. evil. And one liners!)

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