Robert Wiene 1881-1938
German film director and screenwriter.
Wiene is best known for Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), one of the most famous silent films ever made. Distinctive for its highly stylized sets and acting techniques, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represents both the earliest and the most complete manifestation of German Expressionism in film. Critics have variously characterized it as an extremely influential film that has inspired countless later filmmakers or as an anomaly in film history, a unique work with few imitators.
Wiene was born in Sasku, Saxony, a region of eastern Germany. His father was a well known actor in Dresden, and Wiene's college education was in theater history. His career in film began in 1914 as a scriptwriter for the independent producer Oskar Messter. During the First World War, Wiene directed his first films, which were primarily sentimental melodramas starring Henny Porten, who became known as "the darling of the German silent cinema." The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made in 1919 from a script by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, and was initially assigned by producer Erich Pommer to director Fritz Lang. Unable to direct due to a prior commitment, Lang proposed major script revisions to his replacement, Wiene, who endorsed them despite the objections of Mayer and Janowitz. Wiene also differed with the screenwriters in the choice of set designer. Mayer had suggested that Alfred Kubin, an illustrator and writer with a hallucinatory aesthetic vision, design the sets, but Wiene, in the interest of keeping production costs to a minimum, instead chose Walter Riohrig, Hermann Warm, and Walter Reimann—three prominent artists and designers in the Expressionist movement—who conceived ideas that could be realized inexpensively. Integrating the visual designs of these artists with the script's narrative, Wiene developed an acting style to complement both and guided the production of what is considered the first great horror film. Although he enjoyed a long and prolific career, Wiene never repeated the success he achieved with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In 1934 Wiene left Germany to avoid Nazi persecution and settled in France. He died in 1938 while working on a film called Ultimatum.
Wiene's reputation rests almost exclusively on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film opens with a young man named Francis sitting in a garden telling another man a story about Jane, a woman with whom he was once romantically involved. What follows is the visualization of Francis's story. A fair has come to the town of Holstenwall, and a doctor named Caligari applies to a local official for permission to show his "creature," a somnambulist named Cesare. The official grants him permission, but does so in a rude, humiliating way. That night the official is murdered. At the fair the next day, Francis, his friend Alan, and Jane enter Caligari's tent. Seeing that Cesare is making predictions about the future, Alan asks: "How long shall I live?" Cesare answers "until dawn" and that night sneaks into Alan's room and kills him. Suspicious of Caligari, Francis investigates Alan's death as well as other recent mysterious murders. On visiting Caligari's tent one night, he sees what he thinks is Cesare sleeping in a coffin. At the same time, however, Cesare is shown sneaking into Jane's bedroom; unable to bring himself to kill her, he abducts her and flees across the rooftops of Holstenwall. Francis and the police find that both Cesare and Caligari are missing. Francis also discovers that Caligari is really the director of a local insane asylum, and a search of his office reveals that he has modeled himself after an eighteenth-century hypnotist who used one of his subjects to commit a series of murders. Meanwhile, Cesare, still carrying Jane, has been chased through town by an angry mob and dies of exhaustion. Francis confronts Caligari with the corpse of his somnambulist, whereupon the doctor deteriorates into raving lunacy and is placed in a straitjacket. The narrative then returns to Francis in the garden, which is revealed to be part of Caligari's asylum, where Francis is an inmate. The story he told is thus revealed to have been the hallucination of a madman. Ending on a note of hope, a kindly looking Caligari declares that he now knows how to cure Francis.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari introduces themes, characters, and styles of lighting, set design, and acting that not only became staples of horror cinema but also influenced other genres as well. For example, the figure of an odd, sinister stranger who comes to town with a grotesque assistant began with Caligari and Cesare and became familiar to movie audiences through Frankenstein, Dracula, and related horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, the presentation of madness received its first major cinematic treatment in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and critics have observed that much of the film's power to terrify derives from its emphasis on the fragility of identity and the tenuous nature of reason. Indeed, Siegfried Kracauer has argued that the themes of irrationality and restored authority in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reflect a "mass psychological predisposition" in the German people to accept the fascist government of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Finally, the thematic and stylistic influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on subsequent films has been observed in the Expressionist elements of such horror films as Frankenstein and Dracula as well as the shadowy lighting and darkly imaginative set design of films noir, the taut, psychological thrillers of the 1940s that depict a world of fear and terror populated by neurotic, often deranged characters.
Wiene's subsequent works include Genuine, a fantasy concerning an oriental princess sold in a slave market who is intent on revenging herself; Raskolnikow (Raskolnikov), an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; and INRI (Crown of Thorns), the story of Christ set within a framing story of political assassination. The best known and most acclaimed of his later films is Orlacs Hdnde (The Hands of Orlac), the tale of a concert pianist who loses his hands in a railway accident and, through surgery, is given new hands that he begins to suspect once belonged to a murderer.
At the time of its opening, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari impressed most critics with its striking stylization. Rohrig, Warm, and Reimann's sets depicting twisting streets and angular buildings earned the film its reputation as the European cinema's first work of art. Wiene's direction of the two principal actors—Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare—is said to complement the bizarre sets and reinforce the film's aura of dread and terror. In later years, much critical attention has focused on the narrative, specifically the question of the authorship and meaning of the film's framing device, which places Francis in the garden and reveals at the end that it is he who is insane, not Caligari. As written by Mayer and Janowitz, the story ended with Caligari descending into madness. It was Lang who proposed the twist ending, arguing that without restoring a sense of moral authority at the end, audiences would find the film too disturbing. Kracauer, whose arguments parallel those made by Mayer and Janowitz at the time, has contended that the ending precludes the possibility of interpreting the story as an anti-authoritarian political allegory and abets a conservative, indeed fascist, love of authority and order. As other critics point out, however, the ending is far more ambiguous than Kracauer's argument suggests. Logic would dictate that when the madman's story ends, that is, when Francis is revealed to be insane, the set design should reflect the return to normality. However, the sets at the end are just as fantastic as those corresponding to Francis's story. Thus, the restoration of a sense of rational order is undermined and the audience is left to reconcile conflicting signs.
Arme Eva [with W. A. Berger] (film) 1914
Die Konservenbraut (film) 1915
Die Liebesbrief der Konigin (film) 1916
Der Mann im Spiegel (film) 1916
Die Räuberbraut (film) 1916
Das wandernde Licht (film) 1916
Ein gefährliches Spiel (film) 1919
Die drei Tdnze der Mary Wilford (film) 1920
Genuine (film) 1920
Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari] (film) 1920
Die Nacht der Kdnigin Isabeau (film) 1920
Höllische Nacht (film) 1921
Salomé (film) 1922
INRI [Crown of Thorns] (film) 1923
Raskolnikow [Raskolnikov; also released as Crime and Punishment] (film) 1923
*Orlacs Hdnde [The Hands of Orlac] (film) 1925
Die Königin von Moulin-Rouge (film) 1926
Der Rosenkavalier (film) 1926
Die berühmte Frau [The Dancer of Barcelona] (film) 1927
Die Frau auf der Folter [A Scandal in Paris] (film) 1928
Der Andere (film) 1930
Panik in Chicago (film) 1931
Polizeiakte 909 (film) 1934
(The entire section is 153 words.)
SOURCE: "Caligari," in From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton University Press, 1947, pp. 61-76.
[A German philosopher as well as a social and arts critic, Kracauer emigrated to the United States when the Nazis came to power. In the following excerpt, he examines the production history, themes, and techniques of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, arguing that this film best exemplifies his thesis that German popular culture provided evidence of a "mass psychological predisposition" in the German people to accept and embrace Adolf Hitler's fascism.]
[The original story of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is located in a fictitious North German town near the Dutch border, significantly called Holstenwall. One day a fair moves into the town, with merry-go-rounds and side-shows—among the latter that of Dr. Caligari, a weird, bespectacled man advertising the somnambulist Cesare. To procure a license, Caligari goes to the town hall, where he is treated haughtily by an arrogant official. The following morning this official is found murdered in his room, which does not prevent the townspeople from enjoying the fair's pleasures. Along with numerous onlookers, Francis and Alan—two students in love with Jane, a medical man's daughter—enter the tent of Dr. Caligari, and watch Cesare slowly stepping out of an upright, coffinlike box. Caligari tells the thrilled...
(The entire section is 4692 words.)
SOURCE: "The Beginnings of the Expressionist Film," in The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, translated by Roger Greaves, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 17-38.
[Widely recognized as an eminent film critic, Eisner began her career in Germany in the mid-1920s, then fled to France in the 1930s following the rise of nazism. In the following excerpt, which is reprinted from the 1969 translation and revision of the 1952 French version of her The Haunted Screen, Eisner examines the Expressionist aspects of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.]
The leaning towards violent contrast—which in Expressionist literature can be seen in the use of staccato sentences—and the inborn German liking for chiaroscuro and shadow, obviously found an ideal artistic outlet in the cinema. Visions nourished by moods of vague and troubled yearning could have found no more apt mode of expression, at once concrete and unreal.
This explains why the first films of second-rate directors such as Robert Wiene or Richard Oswald misled people into thinking them remarkably gifted. These works blithely married a morbid Freudianism and an Expressionistic exaltation to the romantic fantasies of Hoffmann and Eichendorff, and to the tortured soul of contemporary Germany seemed, with their overtones of death, horror and nightmare, the reflection of its own grimacing...
(The entire section is 2231 words.)
SOURCE: "The Iconography of the Terror-film: Wiene's Caligari," in Caligari's Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980, pp. 164-200.
[Prawer is a German-born English critic and educator specializing in German literature, particularly the work of Heinrich Heine. In the following excerpt, taken from his book which examines the masterpieces of Gothic cinema and theorizes on the function and significance of the artistic expression of horror, he provides an extended discussion of the thematic, narrative, and stylistic innovations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and assesses its influence on subsequent films and filmmakers.]
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari invites its audience to explore a mise en scene that sets live actors and solid furniture into stylized exterior and interior sets obviously painted on to theatrical flats and photographed by a camera which moves relatively little. Its flowing narrative does, however, make significant though sparing use of cross-cutting, flash-back, reductions and expansions of the image-field, high-angle shots, low-angle lighting, split screen, quickly flashed or long-held images, and other devices of the early film, as its tells the story baldly summarized in The Oxford Companion to Film as follows:
Caligari is a hypnotist whose somnambulist, Cesare, kills the hero's...
(The entire section is 13578 words.)
SOURCE: "Social Mobility and the Fantastic: German Silent Cinema," in Wide Angle, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1982, pp. 14-25.
[Elsaesser is an English film scholar and educator who has done extensive research on German cinema. In the following excerpt, he examines the various ways in which The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be interpreted.]
In Dr. Caligari, … the initial situation contains a social aspect involving class and status differences. Caligari, asking deferentially for a permit to put up his tent show, is treated by the town clerk and his subordinates in a brusque, humiliating and insulting manner. There can be little doubt that this scene transmits to the spectator an identifiable, realistic experience of the arbitrary and haughty behavior that a militarist bureaucracy (which is what the civil service was even during the Weimar Republic) displayed towards civilians. What we all at some stage of our lives have murmured under our breath—"I could have killed him"—Caligari acts out. He takes revenge on the hated town clerk by way of his medium Cesare, thus setting off the chain of events which make up the narrative. But here too, any analysis of the origins and causes of such an all-powerful but at the same time petty bureaucracy is blocked and displaced. Instead we find a commensurate magic omnipotence—one which in effect overcompensates. Thus, in Caligari's medium Cesare, as in The...
(The entire section is 1991 words.)
SOURCE: "Dr. Caligari's Cabinet: A Cubist Perspective," in The Comparatist, Vol. VIII, May, 1984, pp. 7-13.
[In the following excerpt, Ketchif argues that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more significantly Cubist than Expressionistic and suggests that the film's manipulation of space mirrors its main themes.]
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an early example of a rejection of early cinematic tradition with its stress of illusion and narrative. The film attempts to maintain a sequential unfolding of narrative while introducing the self-conscious mode of self-reflexion. Narrative had previously demanded illusion, and the makers of Caligari were forced to face the dilemma of modernist painters. A dialectic arose in which the thingness of the film as medium was juxtaposed to the reality of the sequential narrative. To articulate this dialectic Caligari's makers were forced to deny illusion, and they did so in a way that has affinities with the solutions effected by Cubism from 1907-14.
The same problem confronting these German filmmakers in 1919 had earlier confronted Braque and Picasso. These artists sought to maintain the tangibility of forms, the painters' "narrative," but denied the traditional way by which this had been achieved. From the Renaissance on, the reality of objects had been achieved on the canvas by obfuscating the surface itself. Linear perspective...
(The entire section is 2941 words.)
SOURCE: "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: Production, Reception, History," in Close Viewings: An Anthology of New Film Criticism, edited by Peter Lehman, The Florida State University Press, 1990, pp. 333-52.
[Budd is an American film scholar and educator who has written extensively on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the following excerpt, which summarizes much of his previous scholarship on the film, he places The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its historical and artistic contexts.]
Films, like other cultural products, are made and received within particular historical situations. Thus close analyses of film texts will be most revealing when they demonstrate how textual operations and processes are implicated in larger historical processes. Rather than reified objects dissected by the critic, films are dynamic processes in which we as viewers make meaning and pleasure and knowledge—help make our own lives—but not under conditions of our own choosing. These conditions include the discourses and institutions that construct the complex matrix of alternatives within which we make history; they also often determine and disguise our choices. A truly democratic culture requires a critical history, which expands and clarifies present alternatives by reconstructing their bases in the past. This essay aims to contribute to such a critical history through an examination of the production,...
(The entire section is 5157 words.)
Budd, Michael. "Contradictions of Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Indiana Social Studies Quarterly XXXIV, No. 2 (Autumn 1981): 19-25.
Argues that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exemplifies the characteristic contradictions within German Expressionist works between nineteenth- and twentieth-century themes and aesthetic forms.
___. "Modernism and the Representation of Fantasy: Cubism and Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." In Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, pp. 15-21. New York: Greenwood Press, 1982.
Discusses the influence of Cubism and German Expression on the presentation of fantastic subject matter in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
___. "Authorship as a Commodity: The Art Cinema and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Wide Angle 6, No. 1 (1984): 12-19.
Examines The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as "an early example of art cinema, a mode of cinematic discourse which differentiates itself in limited modernist directions from the dominant mode of classical narrative, but which nevertheless is produced and consumed largely within the commodity relations of advanced capitalist societies."
___. "The National Board of Review and the...
(The entire section is 419 words.)