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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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).
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.
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!