CALIGARI shows the “Soul at Work.” On what adventures does the revolutionized soul embark? The narrative and pictorial elements of the film gravitate towards two opposite poles. One can be labeled “Authority,” or, more explicitly, “Tyranny.” The theme of tyranny, with which the authors were obsessed, pervades the screen from beginning to end. Swivel-chairs of enormous height symbolize the superiority of the city officials turning on them, and, similarly, the gigantic back of the chair in Alan’s attic testifies to the invisible presence of powers that have their grip on him.
Staircases reinforce the effect of the furniture: numerous steps ascend to police headquarters, and in the lunatic asylum itself no less than three parallel flights of stairs are called upon to mark Dr. Caligari’s position at the top of the hierarchy. That the film succeeds in picturing him as a tyrant figure of the stamp of Homunculus and Lubitsch’s Henry VIII is substantiated by a most illuminating statement in Joseph Freeman’s novel, Never Call Retreat. Its hero, a Viennese professor of history, tells of his life in a German concentration camp where, after being tortured, he is thrown into a cell: “Lying alone in that cell, I thought of Dr. Caligari; then, without transition, of the Emperor Valentinian, master of the Roman world, who took great delight in imposing the death sentence for slight or imaginary offenses. This Caesar’s favorite expressions were: ‘Strike off his head !’ — ‘Burn him alive !’ — ‘Let him be beaten with clubs till he expires!’ I thought what a genuine twentieth century ruler the emperor was, and promptly fell asleep.”
This dreamlike reasoning penetrates Dr. Caligari to the core by conceiving him as a counterpart of Valentinian and a premonition of Hitler.