a great big beautiful doll
by Douglas Messerli
Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer (writers), Robert Wiene (director) Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) / 1920
anyone who has seen Robert Wiene’s strange German Expressionist film of 1920
will remember, the first half of the film deals with a mad doctor, Caligari,
who, it is later revealed, runs the local lunatic asylum. The “cabinet” of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) reveals, through
As the film critic Siegfried Kracauer argues, the script was originally an indictment of the war-time German government and their lust for power, to which the director added a framing device—in which his character, Francis, tells a horror story that, it is revealed late in the film, is one of his own imagining. In fact, the man he believes is Caligari is simply the head of the asylum in which Francis is incarcerated, argues the critic, along with the very figures he has described, the woman he characterizes as his fiancée Jane and the somnambulant Cesare (Conrad Veidt)—all of which, so Kracauer argues, obliterates Mayer’s and Janowitz’s more subversive script.
Frankly, I don’t read this film as Kracauer did. Indeed, I see it even more frightening that our “hero” has apparently been locked away under the control of the man he believes to be the evil Caligari; and the doctor’s proclamation at the end of the film, “Now I know how to cure him,” seems to me less of a rational announcement than a threat that Francis may soon also become one of the living dead. But then, at the beginning of the 21st century, it may be that we find it harder to believe in even normal-seeming systems.
It is these concerns which lead the devious doctor to want to show off his “creation” at the fair, and like all such other power-seekers, to bring attention to his own evil acts. It is never enough that the creator control the surrounding world, he necessarily must show that embodiment of power to the world, demonstrating his mad desires become flesh.
The real cabinet of Dr. Caligari, accordingly, is not the closed shelf in which lies the evidence of his crimes, but the small tent and coffin-like container wherein he keeps the sleeping beauty over whom he has such power. In short, Caligari is willing to risk everything simply to show off his achievement: the encapsulation of all that others may desire—beauty and knowledge.
Why do so very many successful heterosexual businessmen trot out beautiful wives at every possible social event and occasion when others of equal power are gathered. Obviously they see their wives not as individual beings with whom they have equally joined in marriage but as extensions of themselves which through marriage, a contract of supposed desire, proves their value.
For the ugly Caligari the attractive asexual-looking Cesare, with his heavily made-up eyes, his rouged lips and cheeks, and his lean body represents his own kind of trophy wife, which also perhaps reveals his obvious homosexuality. Yet the true horror here is that he behaves toward his male lover just as would the worst heteronormative patriarch. Like so many wives of the day, Cesare does what he has told as if under a hypnotic trance, not even pausing to question the murderous actions with which he’s also been charged. But by enacting those wishes, Cesare proves time and again, in Caligari’s thinking, his love for and devotion to his master. To hide the fact that Dr. Caligari is capable of keeping such an attractive obedient robot-like human near would be to reject all evidence his own masculinity and virility, even it appears to the community as something outside the heteronormative husband-wife relationship and, therefore, perverse, worthy of showing off only in a carnival-like atmosphere.
Critic Harry M. Benshoof in his Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film describes Caligari’s “puppet” as a homoerotic figure, but I go further in arguing that he is a perverted sexual representation of the Doctor’s desires, a lover who transcends simple representation, even if he may only keep him like a doll in a box, acting out no sexual performances upon him. Carrying him about, touching him, displaying him are all the sensual stimulations that Caligari needs for his satisfaction. And in that sense Wiene’s 1920 film is perhaps the first full exploration of queer sexual desire represented as a thing of horror.
Whether or not Cesare, Caligari, and others are simply manifestations of Francis’ imagination, they exist as a true representation of sexual horror within the context of the traditional German values of the small city in which this story takes place. Fantasy becomes reality in Wiene’s oddly warped and misshapen universe as presented through the set and costume decorations of Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm. And like so very many images of fantasy, they can quickly be perceived in their mad singular or even collective actuation as horrific.
Los Angeles, August 12, 2002, revised November 17, 2021
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2008).