Robert Wiene Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.