On an October night in 1913, Czech poet Hans Janowitz was walking through Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn, looking for a girl “whose beauty and manner attracted him.” He followed her laugh into an adjacent park, where she vanished into the shrubbery with a man. The laugh abruptly stopped. Unnerved, Janowitz hung around and finally saw the shadow of a man emerge, his face like an “average bourgeois” as he passed. The headlines next morning read “Horrible sex crime on the Holstenwall!” Janowitz attended the girl’s funeral, convinced that he had witnessed the crime; and there he locked eyes again with the “average bourgeois,” who seemed to recognize him.
This incident served as the inspiration for Janowitz’s script, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, albeit abstracted through the prism of a shattered Imperialist Germany. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that German film starts with 1919’s Caligari, and while the term “Expressionism” is often applied loosely to all films from the period, Caligari is one of a handful that plays by the aesthetic rules of that movement, with its jagged set design, chiaroscuro lighting, and stilted, arrhythmic performances. The cinematic German Expressionists (the movement was already underway in drama and art) were not concerned with what they considered mundane reflections on nature or the recording of simple facts. It wasn’t destruction, death and totalitarianism they wanted to expose but the interior visions these things provoke, filtered through the senses and refracted back as a more accurate representation of human experience. Mind giving form to matter, not the other way around — the driving creative force of the writers and set designers.
But mind giving form to money was preferable to the producers. They brought in director Fritz Lang to help make the surreal story more palatable (and exportable) but, due to other commitments, he had to drop out of the project early on. Despite his short tenure, Lang’s one recommendation infuriated the writers by bookending the narrative with “lunatic asylum” segments that they felt undermined the script’s anti-authoritarian message. Thus, the murderous, sleepwalking “everyman” manipulated and controlled by the totalitarian master became a deus ex machina by a guy in a straight jacket. Both the producers and new-director Robert Weine loved the idea and felt it would give Caligari more international appeal, putting the upstart German film industry on the map.
Other events helped to do that. And after Hitler and what the West perceived as the complete acquiescence of the German citizenry to Nazi will, the film’s subtext was so undeniably clear that the framing device hardly mattered anymore. Instead of the first classic horror film, Caligari became a huge unheeded warning cry that things were still amiss in the collective German psyche, that the servant /master game was still brewing behind the scenes in the Weimar Republic, or so thought expatriates like Siegfried Kracauer, whose 1947 study From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film set the scholarly debate framework for decades to come, until feminist film theory began to challenge some of those sacrosanct ideas. The film’s reputation continued to grow. Over the decades, it became an art house perennial, the iconic image of somnambulist Conrad Veidt (later the lead Nazi in Casablanca) cropping up on album covers, advertisements, and t-shirts. Of all the Weimar era films, only Lang’s Metropolis can claim such a lasting impact on our popular culture.