HALLOWEEN, WOLFSONIAN-STYLE: DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, AND THE HORRORS OF THE “GREAT WAR”

This last evening, The Wolfsonian screened two silent horror classics of the post-World War era: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari directed by Robert Wiene (1921) and Nosferatu (1922).

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As I frequently teach a film and history course at Florida International University, I had been asked to introduce these German expressionist films in the context of the “Great War” and its denouement. I am currently teaching a course on the First World War at the university and have been immersed in the history of this era. Reviewing the films in this context had permitted me to see them through the eyes of those who had lived through those dark times. I thought that I might share with my readers some of those observations.

I had always admired the incredible German expressionist and Cubist influenced set designs of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But in re-viewing the film and thinking about its historical context, I found myself drawn especially to the faces of the actors as well as the dramatic sets.

Caligari Poster

The film begins with Francis, a sickly and agitated young man, recounting the traumatic experiences that have brought him to his present state. Francis resembles the tens of thousands of young men who returned from the war suffering from “war neurosis.” Another character, Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist puppet, Cesare, is even more pallid and sickly in appearance and resembles a more severe case of “shell-shock”—a living zombie.

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Lynd Ward, an American artist visiting Germany at the time of the film’s release was doubtlessly influenced by the German expressionist film, as can be seen in his first graphic novel, God’s Man.

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In the atmosphere of disillusionment that followed Germany’s defeat in the Great War, expressionist artists and bitter social critics like Georg Grosz (1893-1959) railed against the “Moloch of Militarism.” Grosz, for example, produced disturbing works that focused on the hideously disfigured soldiers and shell-shocked veterans of the war.

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The millions of young Germans who had been conscripted to fight in the Great War had no other choice but to kill under the orders of the older Junker-class military officers. Similarly in the film, the twenty-three year old somnambulist, Cesare, has no will of his own and carries out the murderous orders of the puppet master, Dr. Caligari, depicted as a shadowy and sinister old man in a top hat.

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The plot begins with Francis and his friend Alan entering Caligari’s mysterious exhibit set up in a tent at an annual fair in Holstenwall. Alan, a young man obsessed with knowing his fate, asks the somnambulist-oracle how long he has to live and is told “Till dawn.” During the Great War, dawn was the time of day typically chosen for the suicidal attacks launched against enemy trenches. Hearing this ill tiding, the young man’s face contorts into a range of expressions that mirror those of shell-shocked soldiers: stunned disbelief, maniacal laughter, and a vacant stare as he struggles to come to grips with the horror of the pronouncement.

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Just as the young men recruited and drafted into military service in the Great War were expected to kill other young men without remorse, Dr. Caligari’s hypnotized automaton has no compunctions killing Alan to fulfill his own prophesy. But when Caligari orders Cesare to kill Francis’s fiancée, Jane, the somnambulist wavers. It seems as if he, like the soldiers who were encouraged by propaganda posters to imagine themselves as the defenders of women and children, was unable to transgress that moral code.

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IMAGE COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Instead, Cesare kidnaps and carries his intended victim through a surreal trench-like landscape past defoliated trees that resemble barbed wire.

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The sets of the film’s twisted world were designed by Hermann Warm and show the influence of Cubism, Expressionism, and wartime experiments with camouflage. Many appear to depict shell bursts.

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According to Anton Kaes, author of Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War, the shadowy showman, Dr. Caligari was modeled after Jean-Martin Charcot, a famous Parisian psychiatrist.

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Charcot was known for employing hypnosis on his psychiatric patients during his medical training sessions.

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Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière / Andre Brouillet (1886)

According to Kaes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was intended to be a scathing indictment of those psychiatrists who, under pressure from the military command during the war, dismissed the reality of “shell shock,” employed electric shocks to cure “war neurosis,” and used threats of torture to frighten “fakers” back to active duty on the front.

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Ultimately, the audience is left to wonder if they can trust their traumatized narrator. Is Dr. Caligari a murderous showman and charlatan? A war psychiatry criminal? The mad director of an insane asylum? Or a benign and well-intentioned psychiatrist interested in curing an insane patient?

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Director F. W. Nurnau’s Nosferatu, released in 1922, also had much to say about the blood-letting of the Great War and the global influenza pandemic that brought about the armistice on November 11, 1918. This film, too, is set in a film noir world of darkness and shadow.

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Unlike the surreal landscape of Dr. Caligari, the sets of Nosferatu are realistic. The plot begins with an old and creepy estate agent in Wisbourg, Germany convincing his young employee, Hutter, to travel to Transylvania to sell Count Orlok an abandoned house. Seen from the perspective of the prison-like window panes of Hutter’s own home, the dark windows and façade of the deserted building across the street resembles tombstones interspersed with crosses—reminders of war and death.

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Not unlike the millions of young men who eagerly volunteered when war was declared, young Hutter readily agrees to do his master’s bidding. He is happy to embark on the venture to a foreign land, even if in doing so he will have to abandon his marriage bed, and despite a warning that it might cost him “some pain” and a “little blood.”

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In pursuit of his master’s business, Hutter encounters the vampire—depicted in the film as a deathly ghoulish figure rather than as the suave and seductive lady’s man made famous by Hungarian-American actor, Bela Lugosi in the 1930s.

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In what appears superficially to be a medieval reference and motif, death accompanies the vampire in the form of a plague of rats.

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For veterans and survivors of the Great War, however, the rats would have had a more immediate and visceral association coming from the horrific conditions of trench warfare. Rats so infested the trenches of the combatants on the Western front, that rat hunts were regularly organized to deal with the vermin.

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(LEFT) RESULTS OF A TERRIER’S FIFTEEN MINUTE HUNT IN THE FRENCH TRENCHES; (RIGHT) RESULTS OF A GERMAN RAT HUNT

William Smithson Broadhead (1888-1960), a British war artist, included the following sketch in a letter he penned to his parents dated April 1, 1916:

There’s one thing I strongly object to & that is the plague of rats here. At night they run about in regiments. A night never passes without my being awakened by one either running across my head or jumping onto my body. They are such big bounders too…I think the plague is caused by the fact that there are hundred[s] of dead still unburied not many miles from here and another thing which encourages them is the habit of the French soldiers throwing their rubbish & refuge about! We always bury ours.

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Courtesy of: http://shefflibraries.blogspot.com/2014/08/hoof-prints-over-western-front-world.html

As disturbing as the nightly gymnastics of Broadhead’s trench rats must have been, it was nothing compared to the horrors of seeing them feasting on the dead and dying.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PRIVATE COLLECTION

One book published in 1920 shows the terrifying realities soldiers suffered and endured as they lived and died among the rats.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PRIVATE COLLECTION

Other artists remembering the Great War also gruesomely portrayed the horror of rats feasting on fallen soldiers.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT

An anti-German watercolor by G. Pretty dated 1916 does not paint a pretty picture of Prussian militarism and Kultur.

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A close-up of a detail of the painting reveals the ape-like German soldiers traveling with a pack of rats, one of whom menaces a broken doll.

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In Nosferatu it is not the vampire, Count Orlok, but the plague that depopulates the village of the protagonists.

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The audience witnesses (through a peephole and barred window) a procession of coffins passing through the empty street.

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This also would have resonated with the post-war audience as the Spanish influenza pandemic hit in the last year of the war.

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. LONG-TERM LOAN

Infecting one-fifth of the world’s population, the highly contagious influenza epidemic claimed the lives of 30-60 million victims—the majority between the ages of 20 and 40 dying within mere hours of contracting the virus! By way of comparison, the Great War claimed the lives of 10 million combatants (2 million of who succumbed to disease) and another 7 million civilians; some 20 million more were left alive but seriously wounded. A total of 675,000 Americans perished in the flu pandemic; nearly half of U.S. servicemen who died during the war fell to the flu rather than in combat.

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“Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918.”—National Photo Co., via the Library of Congress website

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Courtesy of http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/1918/the_pandemic/iowa_flu2.jpg

It is not coincidence that the influenza epidemic hit its deadliest spike just one month before the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The pandemic had left too many soldiers weakened, sick, or dying to continue the bloody conflict!

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~ by "The Chief" on October 31, 2014.

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