Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Dark Obsession With Cesare (Reel Infatuations Blogathon)


The character of Cesare (Conrad Veidt) , the somnambulist in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (known better here in the U.S. of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) might seem like a strange character that a crush like obsession might develop on the part of any cinephile.  But I simply can't seem to help myself.  He is the hapless the victim of the insane hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).  His character is meant to represent the equally hapless soldier of war, conditioned to kill, by the insanity of government hell bent on waging war.  The film's conception as an allegory came from two German pacifists during the first world war, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer--who wrote the film.  Though the allegory can quickly get lost in the pure strangeness of the sets (designed by Herman Warm), and the odd manner of the way the characters move around in them.  It was Cesare's movement that first caught my attention as a child.  Over time, this grew into a pathos that lead to a crush in my teens.  Over the years, that obsession only deepened every time a viewed the film.  He is presented as utterly pathetic; a side-show freak that is the embodiment of the helpless human automaton, doing the bidding of a man that displays demonic motivations.  That's when the pathos started.

Cesare Awakes!

In his side show at the local fair, the "good" Dr. presents Cesare in a coffin like box, propped up on stage. He informs his audience that he is the only person who can rouse Cesare, and that when he does this, Cesare answers questions about the future with truthful predictions.  Cesare, he tells them, has been asleep for 23 years.  The rousing process is frightening, only because Cesare does in no way looks as though he faking a thing.  At Caligari's commandment, Cesare twitches, his mouth opens slightly and finally his eyes open.  After this his hands come up (think Frankenstein's monster) and he is commanded to walk out of his "cabinet."  He is now able to speak.  Amongst the audience are two young men, best friends, both of them sweet on the same young woman .  One of them, against the advice of the other, asks Cesare how long he will live; in an unflinching, but still slightly pathetic expression, he answers "until dawn."  The audience reacts with complete fear and revulsion--the young men flee.  The film presents Cesare as an almost supernatural slave--a man caught not just in nightmare state, unable to wake on his own, and equally unable to stop the predictions that come as answers--only to be returned to his zombie like existence and sealed up in his "pine box."  It's a powerful image that can easily turn into allure on the part of the viewer.  It's the classic, "I need to save him."

Later, during the dead of night, shown in deepest hues of blue, we see the shadow of a figure wielding a knife, who then kills the young man whose death was predicted by Cesare.  The shadow appears to resemble Cesare, but this certainly cannot be the case, as Dr. Caligari has put his hapless somnambulist back in his "cabinet."  Eventually, another member of the village is detained by police for the murder; though it is clear his visage bears no resemblance to the shadow seen murdering the young man.  The viewer then begins to think, "is the evil Dr. using Cesare as murder weapon against Cesare's will?"  If so, what sort of hell must Cesare live in for the brief periods that Caligari allows him consciousness??  The police wonder this as well and have questions.  Again, with me, that only increased my sense of slightly erotic sympathies toward Cesare.  How did this hapless soul come to be in such a state?

Cesare being examined by the police.

When next we see Cesare, Dr. Caligari opens up the casket like cabinet, sits the unconscious Cesare up, and feeds him.  He then lays him back down and closes him back up.  If there were any doubts about the true state that Cesare is in, any suspicions that he is in on any sort of trick or fraud, this scene puts them all to bed, so to speak.  Just after this, the police show up and demand that they be allowed to examine the somnambulist.  Caligari is at first uncooperative, but eventually allows them to into his caravan.  The Dr. opens the cabinet again and the police sit Cesare up; they then proceed to poke and prod him in a very unprofessional manner--demanding that Caligari wake him up--which he successfully refuses to do.  Again, the sympathy for Cesare, the helpless automaton, trapped in what must surely be a nightmare world, from which he cannot wake, wells up.  How much is he aware of his surroundings when in this state?

Throughout various points in the film, scenes depicting the young woman--that object of affection of the two young men--one of them now dead, are woven into the story.  Her domestic life, her learning of the death of the young man and that he died by murder, and finally a her frantic search for her missing father.  This draws her ever closer to the Dr.  She shows up at Caligari's fair tent inquiring if he's seen her father.  Caligari has other plans.... He has Cesare set up for yet another show, he then opens the cabinet to reveal the sleeping man to young Jane.  She looks confused, then scared.  He commands Cesare to wake, which he does.  Cesare takes long and genuinely chilling stare at her, culminating in a face to face stare.  She becomes so livid with fear that she runs.  What Caligari thinks he's up to here, is unclear; but Cesare seems to have shown his first act of thinking for himself.  He notices her on his own terms, not Caligari's.  This further complicates the state that Cesare "lives" in.  Clearly he is a kind of zombie, but not one that couldn't be rescued.  He shows some of his own personality, if even for a fleeting second.

What happens next makes it crystal clear that Caligari is using Cesare as a murder weapon--though what the Doctor's motives are never come to light.  He wakes Cesare and sends him off to murder Jane, just as he obviously had with her young suitor.  Cesare sneaks into her bedroom, knife in hand, having been instructed to kill her.  He raises the knife, but then stops, suddenly having another moment of a kind of lucidity.  He sees that this is the same person that he had come face to face with earlier in the day.  He is clearly struck by her, perhaps even attracted to her.  What he does next looks truly horrifying to the viewer, but it is the first time that poor Cesare acts on his own motivation.  He violently grabs her, waking her in a state of terror, and drags her from her house, through the maze of blue streets, into the dark woods.  It looks every bit the horror film that it is, yet Cesare seems to only be motivated to save her.  In the process, the burden of her weight gets the better of him and he collapses, allowing the young woman to escape back into the safety of the village, to villagers that are searching for her.  Seeing his game is up, Dr. Caligari flees, but not before being chased by the surviving young suitor.

Later films like Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, draw some direct inspiration from Cesare's behavior; though, of course, Edward is not bidded to murder anyone and is obviously mostly a re-working of Frankenstein.  Still it's hard not to have a similar progression with Edward, starting with the pathos, and eventually ending in falling for him.  Dr. Caligari, though, unlike "The Inventor" (Vincent Price) in Edward Scissorhands, presents Cesare as a constantly sleeping individual, completely under his power. Only Carligari (who is a repulsive as Cesare is alluring, despite the deep markings around his eyes) claims the ultimate power to wake him and command him to speak.  Still the comparison in look, progression of helplessness and ultimate tragedy the similarlities between Cesare and Edward are stark.

The film takes a turn for the truly bizarre at this point.  We, the viewer, are left not knowing what has become of poor Cesare.  The young man chasing Caligari follows him to what turns out be an insane asylum.  He inquires within if they have a patient named Caligari, never asking about Cesare.  The staff look confused and say "no." He is then told that he should consult the director of the asylum.  On entering the director's office he sees that director and "Dr. Caligari" are the same person.  He flees.  He manages to convince the authorities that they should check the director of the asylum while searching for Caligari.  Sneaking into the director's office at night while he sleeps, they pour over his books, eventually finding an old Italian tome entitled "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" about a hypnotist and his somnambulist in a box.  Suspecting that the Cesare from the book was the invention of the director and the Cesare that they saw in his cabinet, might be an inmate of the asylum, they search the woods. At this point in the film my sense of affection for "Cesare," as we must now put his name in quotation marks--since his actual name is unknown--only increases.  What has become of this poor, exploited individual??  The next morning, they confront the director with the lifeless body of "Cesare" and he goes completely mad, screaming that his own personal obsession is now gone.  It turns out I am not alone in my obsession with Cesare.  But now, this poor soul is lost--there will be now saving him; and empathy and allure turn to grief.  

But how can this be?  How is a director of a prominent insane asylum so stricken the mental illness himself?  Is it all in his imagination?  He he driven himself mad with obsession to plumb the dark depths of an ancient form of hypnotism?  Or is something else going on all together?  The answer is, unfortunately, the later.  The film suddenly, very abruptly (!), changes--we see everyone that was in the village are actually inmates of the asylum, even Jane.  That the story teller, the young man that chased Caligari to the institution, is in fact the one that is deeply delusional.  The director, having realized that the young man has taken him for the mythical Italian Dr. Caligari, has just provided him with a means to treat the delusional man; to release from his nightmare world peopled with friends that are not friend, women who don't actually love him, and zombies that predict the future.  As to "Cesare," as the viewer follows the movement of the babbling young man amongst his fellow inmates, there is the poor tortured soul, standing picking flowers against a wall.  He is clearly deeply ill and possibly mute.  We never learn his name, we never know his malady, we only see that he is harmless and helpless.  It's enough to bring a viewer who cares to tears.

All the credit here goes to Conrad Veidt, who plays Cesare/Unnamed Mental Patient.  He hits every facial feature needed to heightened both horror and helplessness, sometimes at the same time.  It is a far cry from The Joker character that he would inhabit some eight years later in Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughed!  Veidt was an actor with considerable talent and range; the sort of thespian who could just fall into character and one has trouble seeing that it the same person from role to role.  In this case, his portrayal, even in a silent film, of a character(s) that basically has no lines is masterful.  Enough to cause viewers to become lovingly obsessed.


  1. You're right about Conrad Veldt and how he can disappear into his characters.

    This is a wonderful essay, and you've brilliantly explained your attraction to the unfortunate Cesare. I can totally see it!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for choosing this film. You've given me lots to think about.

    1. Enjoyed viewing the film a couple of extra times writing it, so Wado (thank you) for hosting! Very much enjoying everyone else's entries!

  2. Conrad Veidt is just fabulous. I was left speechless by his performance in this film. I wouldn't say I developed a crush on Cesare, but I felt a deep sympathy and compassion for the character.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. He was such a talent, died too young in my opinion!