At the beginning of the war, the adolescent made his living by sketching Hindenburg portraits on postcards in Munich cafes. Later in the war, Janowitz reports, he had to undergo repeated examinations of his mental condition. Mayer seems to have been very embittered against the high-ranking military psychiatrist in charge of his case.
The war was over. Janowitz, who from its outbreak had been an officer in an infantry regiment, returned as a convinced pacifist, animated by hatred of an authority which had sent millions of men to death. He felt that absolute authority was bad in itself. He settled in Berlin, met Carl Mayer there, and soon found out that this eccentric young man, who had never before written a line, shared his revolutionary moods and views. Why not express them on the screen? Intoxicated with Wegener’s films, Janowitz believed that this new medium might lend itself to powerful poetic revelations.
As youth will, the two friends embarked on endless discussions that hovered around Janowitz’ Holstenwall adventure as well as Mayer’s mental duel with the psychiatrist. These stories seemed to evoke and supplement each other. After such discussions the pair would stroll through the night, irresistibly attracted by a dazzling and clamorous fair on Kantstrasse. It was a bright jungle, more hell than paradise, but a paradise to those who had exchanged the horror of war for the terror of want.
One evening, Mayer dragged his companion to a side-show by which he had been impressed. Under the title “Man or Machine” it presented a strong man who achieved miracles of strength in an apparent stupor. He acted as if he were hypnotized. The strangest thing was that he accompanied his feats with utterances which affected the spellbound spectators as pregnant forebodings.
Any creative process approaches a moment when only one additional experience is needed to integrate all elements into a whole. The mysterious figure of the strong man supplied such an experience. On the night of this show the friends first visualized the original story of CALIGARI. They wrote the manuscript in the following six weeks.
Defining the part each took in the work, Janowitz calls himself “the father who planted the seed, and Mayer the mother who conceived and ripened it.” At the end, one small problem arose: the authors were at a loss as to what to christen their main character, a psychiatrist shaped after Mayer’s archenemy during the war. A rare volume, Unknown Letters of Stendhal, offered the solution. While Janowitz was skimming through this find of his, he happened to notice that Stendhal, just come from the battlefield, met at La Scala in Milan an officer named Caligari. The name clicked with both authors.
Their story is located in a fictitious North German town near the Dutch border, significantly called Holstenwall. One day a fair moves into the town, with merry-go-rounds and side-shows — among the latter that of Dr. Caligari, a weird, bespectacled man advertising the somnambulist Cesare.
To procure a license, Caligari goes to the town hall, where he is treated haughtily by an arrogant official. The following morning this official is found murdered in his room, which does not prevent the townspeople from enjoying the fair’s pleasures. Along with numerous onlookers, Francis and Alan — two students in love with Jane, a medical man’s daughter — enter the tent of Dr. Caligari, and watch Cesare slowly stepping out of an upright, coffinlike box. Caligari tells the thrilled audience that the somnambulist will answer questions about the future. Alan, in an excited state, asks how long he has to live. Cesare opens his mouth; he seems to be dominated by a terrific, hypnotic power emanating from his master. “Until dawn,” he answers. At dawn Francis learns that his friend has been stabbed in exactly the same manner as the official. The student, suspicious of Caligari, persuades Jane’s father to assist him in an investigation.