The research aim of this video essay is to provide an alternative reading of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari assuming the protagonist Francis is a sane, reliable narrator. This assumption is essential for the validity of the film’s anti-authoritarian, anti-war messages, which are necessarily drawn into question if the narrator is assumed insane. Removing the “Well, Francis is insane” excuse from the narrative structure reveals a conspicuous continuity issue with the epilogue scene while assigning new importance to otherwise inconsequential mise-en-scene details. The argument and evidence presented in this video essay should not to be construed as the “one and true” interpretation of the film, but as an opportunity to revisit this century-old silent film classic via Stan Brakhage’s “untutored eye” to consider a new possibility, a new logic.
Upon first viewing Caligari, I immediately assumed the middle-class, well-dressed Francis was doing his best to avoid enlistment in WWI, where stubborn generals foolishly – and repeatedly – applied obsolete tactics to modern, industrialized warfare with horrific results. Safe from the battlefield, these pampered generals had neither the will nor the competence to deviate from their archaic training. Naturally, waves of men charging into machine-gun fire produced mangled corpses and blood-soaked fields, but the distant generals insisted this approach, since it worked in the past, would work again. They sincerely thought that élan, or fighting spirit, would prevail over an unrelenting lead storm. Any sane observer, especially those tasked with going “over the top” knew this was madness and a death sentence, especially an educated man like Francis. I was surprised to learn most scholars took Francis’ madness at face value, which not only undercut the power of the film’s anti-authoritarian and anti-war messages but also supposedly foreshadowed the impending fascist fate of Germany.
Scholarly literature is replete with insane Francis characterizations that also include unexplored possibilities for a sane Francis. Anton Kaes believes that Francis is insane and perhaps suffers from shell shock; however, he also states that military-aged men would regularly fake insanity to avoid war. Unfortunately, Kaes doesn’t investigate the possibility and implications of a sane Francis reading. Siegfried Kracauer believes that the “revolutionary” film was effectively turned into a “conformist” film by the addition of the final framing scene showing an insane Francis. Kracauer argues this was done to appeal to the expectation of the masses: a benevolent authority (the Director) taking care of the masses (Francis). The sinister implications of Kracauer’s argument are devastating for Germany: passive citizens awaiting the inevitable rise of Hitler and his genocidal madness. If nothing else, crafting a viable sane Francis reading is important to provide a counterargument to Kracauer’s indictment of Germany using this film. However, Kracauer also mentions that declaring troublesome (but sane) people insane and sending them to an asylum was a “much-used” abuse. Thus, Kracauer concedes that the sane do end up in asylums but doesn’t extent this opportunity to Francis in the manner I do because it is inconsistent with his passive Germany reading of Caligari.
Conversely, some scholars consider Francis sane but don’t fully discuss the implications for the framing story. Mike Budd makes the case for a sane Francis due to the so-called “original script” purchased from the estate of Werner Krauss. In it, there’s an opening frame with a quite sane Francis telling his story, not in the garden of an asylum, but 20 years later in an elegant villa surrounded by dinner guests and Jane. There is no epilogue in this script; however, it does show the original intent of a sane Francis. While it is tempting to eliminate the epilogue from the analysis based on Krauss’ script, I prefer to analyze the film as is and use Budd’s work to support the sane Francis hypothesis. David Robinson describes the interpretations of Francis as the audience has evolved. For the earliest spectators, Francis’ insanity was taken at face value; however, Robinson believes that modern viewers “in an era of endemic skepticism in the face of authority” could easily see Francis as a sane man in the asylum. Rather than understanding Francis as seeking refuge in an asylum to avoid WWI (as I propose), Robinson posits a more horrific reality: the evil Dr. Caligari is keeping him there against his wishes, which is consistent with Kracauer’s thinking on how sane individuals end up in an asylum. Unfortunately, neither Budd nor Robinson investigate the implications of Francis’ sanity on the framing story.
Since this video essay is unconventional with its sane Francis hypothesis and reimagined framing story to enhance narrative continuity, I found it important to focus on specific supporting details that were either explicit in the mise-en-scene (empty chair motif) or implicit due to the reimagined timeline (Cesare’s cause of death “in real life”). Eliminating the insanity defense for narrative inconsistencies means an obligation to rebuild the story with “film facts” much in the same way Andre Bazin described the process of sense-making in Jean Renoir’s films. This is what I’ve attempted to do by focusing on the interpretation of specific details to reveal a coherent whole.
The story Francis tells is an allegory of his own life, where he’s seen the war machine ruthlessly take men to slaughter, destroying and terrorizing civil society along the way. To Francis, his country has become an asylum led by madmen infatuated with the power and abuse of technology, unconcerned with the human costs when modernity goes to war; however, he’d rather stay in the asylum than fight and die outside its borders. It’s no surprise that Dr. Caligari’s madness is motivated by the blind pursuit of dubious scientific knowledge (i.e., testing the worthless “murderous somnambulist” hypothesis) from 1783 – a clear allusion to and indictment of the Enlightenment and its “progress.” Thus, the sane Francis hypothesis is essential not only for the film’s anti-war and anti-authoritarian messages but also for the anti-unbridled-modernity message that would resonate with any spectator who lived through WWI.