Doctor Caligari's office

Carlos Zilio, 1970, study 10, 47x32,5


Commentary on the 1920 film, a classic of German expressionism

In Berlin in the early 1920s, stories were told of young men who bought feeble-minded youths in the countryside in order to dissect them alive. Drunk on laughing gas, victims reacted with frantic laughter. The painter Kisling would have attended one of those sadistic ceremonies whose sinister and hardly bearable account is found in a book by Michael Georges-Michel, Les Montparnos. The author of this romanticized chronicle of the artistic milieu of Montparnasse in the period immediately after the First World War claims to have watched or heard everything he writes. We try to escape the horror of the Berlin episode in the hope that Kisling or Georges-Michel lied.

In any case, the way in which the event fits into the text is revealing. Kisling would have joined the participants of the infernal experience in the Glauen Vogel Kaffee, establishment where everything was painted black. Including the cups. The tables and chairs were very small and the service was done by grotesque dwarfs who claimed to the customers that they were the result of incestuous love. In this environment Kisling encountered not only the people who would later take him to the dissecting show, but also old friends from pre-1914 Paris, such as the sculptor De Fiori, Archipenko and the astrologer Artaval. The stranger with them at the table was introduced to Kisling as Kroll, author of caligari, who prepared an adaptation of The idiot, by Dostoyevsky.

Michael Georges-Michel warns on the front page of Les Montparnos which, save for persons named by name, as is the case with Kisling and Cendrars, has not described anyone in particular. Mondrulleau, for example, the main character of the novel, as the name suggests, has many traits of Modigliani and Utrillo. As far as I know, there are none Kroll among those responsible for the film Doctor Caligari's office and Wiene's film adaptation of Dostoyevsky was Raskolnikoff, based on Crime and Punishment.

Historical inaccuracy does not matter in the case. But it is significant that, alongside the black cups and dwarfs of the Glauen Vogel, Kisling, or Georges-Michel, evoked Caligari as a decorative introduction to the description of an adventure that would represent the maximum point of alienation reached by the decomposed sectors of German society after the war of 1914-18. “It was the time,” wrote Otto Strasser, “of morbid sadists, of love in a corpse's coffin, of the cruelest masochism, of maniacs of all kinds; it was the golden age of homosexuals, astrologers, sleepwalkers”.

This quotation from Strasser can be found in the program distributed by the Clube de Cinema de São Paulo during the screening of caligari years ago at the Faculty of Philosophy. This indicates that both for the French writer in 1923 and for us in 1940, the decadence of the tape exuded. Today we ask ourselves if it was pertinent to insinuate caligari as a symptom of the diseases that afflicted the German social organism. The tape's celebrity was so great that we tended abusively to consider it as a symbol and summary of post-war German cinema.

We lost sight of the fact that the film was made after the defeat of 1918, but before the 1919s, a period of depression and despair. The end of the war took place in a revolutionary atmosphere, that is, hopeful, and only in a historical perspective do we feel that hope was truncated during XNUMX. For Germany at that time, the worst was the very recent past, the final period of hostilities, and she accepted the difficulties of the moment with optimism, willing to criticize the false values ​​that had led her to her present situation, determined to forge a different future.

caligari it was conceived and carried out in this atmosphere of struggle and trust. Its authors were fully aware of constituting an avant-garde. They broke with the mediocre past of German cinema, faced the current taste for historical reconstructions of the UFA, already industrially powerful, did not seek to rely on foreign cinematographic models to express their conceptions. Partly out of ignorance, but also deliberately, they were not aware of the evolution of cinema as an autonomous language as it had been in the last five years in the United States. They wanted to make the film an artistic fact, not starting from the idea of ​​cinema as original art, but instilling in it the values ​​of painting and theater.

At first glance, the starting point of the caligari is quite similar to those responsible for the film d'art French ten years earlier. In France, however, plastic essays were concerned with imitating the Italian Renaissance and The passion, by Feuillade, looks like footage from an academic canvas. About the Assassination of the Duke of Guise, its literary director came from the Academy and the artistic teams from French comedy, that is, from the most established and conventional sources.

In the German experience the situation was different. The group gathered around Erich Pommer and Robert Wiene was made up of young people excited by the desire to do something new. The Austrian Carl Mayer and the Czech Hans Janowitz were lively young men, marked by the gears of war, unpublished writers eager to express their protests. The painters Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reinann belonged to the group The storm, citadel of the artistic rebellion started in Munich a few years before the war. Lil Dagover was debuting, Conrad Veldt was twenty-six, Werner Krauss looked old but couldn't be much older than thirty. The youngest of all was Friedrich Feher, later author of La Symphonie des Brigands, one of the most poetic and inspired works of cinema.

Almost all participants in the caligari they had theatrical experience and we know that the German stages were animated by the renewed effervescence started before the war mainly by Max Reinhardt. like the Assassination of the Duke of Guise, caligari it wanted to be Art, but avant-garde, and as its promoters were not concerned with the cinematographic specific, they unembarrassedly appealed to what was most alive in German artistic life, painting and the theater.

Pommer, commercially responsible for the film, combined aesthetic audacity with the usual caution of film producers. Avant-garde was then synonymous with expressionism, but the public of the new school was still being formed. The extent of the movement was in any case evident, and two or three years later Spengler wrote in the revised edition of the West's Decline about “the shameless farce of Expressionism, which the artistic trade organized as a phase of art history” [1].

caligari it would therefore be expressionism, but addressed to an audience that was incalculably wider than the literary one or that of the theater and exhibitions, and to that end some precautions would have to be taken. The general audience of cinemas was used to a conventional realism that did not challenge common sense and perhaps did not understand the motivation of the screens painted by Warm and his companions. But to sacrifice these elements of scenography would be to renounce the most artistic, different, expressionist aspects of the experience. The solution found was to logically justify the unreality of the sets thanks to a script change.

Mayer and Janowitz told the story of a hypnotist who exhibited a soothsayer at fairs. As events unfolded, Doctor Caligari, as the character was called, revealed himself as a mad murderer and finally as the director of the local asylum. The drama's atmosphere and characters were rooted in the authors' combined experiences at different times.

The central plot, however, stemmed directly from the war for both. They had become, if not revolutionaries, at least anarchist pacifists. Their ideology consisted first of all in their horror of the principle of authority and respect for the leader, so important in German social life and responsible, according to them, for the worst of the carnage of 1914-18. They went even further, they were convinced that the authority necessarily secret the crime. This is what they sought to express in the parable of Doctor Caligari, director of an asylum for the insane, a situation that facilitated his activity as a madman. Caesar, the sleepwalking material author of Caligari's crimes, was as innocent as the soldiers of front and should be saved, like the people, from the hypnosis of authority and chief.

In light of these intentions, it is easy to imagine the despair of the authors when the filmmakers decided that, in order to justify the scenography, everything happened in the alienated imagination of Francis, the character who in the original story unmasked Doctor Caligari. The result was the restoration of respect for authority and the presentation of rebellion as a case of madness.

It would be puerile to establish an automatic link between the truncation of the social message of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and that of revolutionary hope in Germany in 1919. In either case, however, it is possible to observe that the determining force was conformism. It is known that in German social life the movement of respect for established norms did nothing. In caligari, the concession to common sense and its ideological consequences did not prevent that, by integrating theatrical and pictorial avant-garde values ​​into cinema, the film provoked an aesthetic revolution.

In view of the future development of German cinema, it is opportune to note the name of the obscure collaborator of Pommer who found the formula to justify the expressionism of caligari and to order the chaotic denunciation of Mayer and Janowitz: Fritz Lang.

*Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes (1916-1977) was the founder of Cinemateca Brasileira, professor at UnB and USP. Author, among other books, of Jean vigo (Senac/CosacNaify)


Doctor Caligari's office (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari)
Germany, 1920, 71 minutes.
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Screenplay: Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz
Scenario: Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reinann
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover


Originally published on Literary Supplement of the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, on January 24, 1959.


[1] The prophet's indignation is understandable. If he accepted the validity of any modern artistic current, he would demolish his grandiose philosophy of history.


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