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Expression and Character in the Movements of Cesare

The somnambulist Cesare in Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is by far one of the more interesting screen personalities in early German cinema. Conrad Veidt's portrayal of a peaceful sleepwalker forced to carry out the demented whims of his showmaster is both touching and terrifying, and captures the viewer's attention immediately. Not only are Cesare's gestures, movements, and expressions far more restrained than those of his master Caligari or of his adversary Francis, but these movements show precisely the nature of Cesare's controlled sleeping state. Indeed, Cesare's domination is so total that he is almost never shown moving of his own volition, free of the will of his master Caligari. Through a detailed analysis of Cesare's actions and through a comparison of these actions with those of the other figures in the film, the viewer also becomes aware of certain underlying tensions in the plot, especially those between Francis and Cesare and Jane. Where Francis is shown to be generally hesitant and ineffectual, and Jane to be poised yet emotionally malleable, Cesare presents a strong contrast to both: he is restrained, controlled, and dominated by his master, yet he retains a strong identity and at moments manages even to break through this control.

Perhaps the most striking example of Cesare's restraint and eventual release occurs in the sequence showing his abduction of Jane and subsequent fall from the rooftops of Holstenwall. After Jane, her father and Francis are seen coming out of the cemetery after Alan's funeral, the sequence of Jane's abduction begins. First, following the "Night again ..." title, the camera opens on Francis as he sneaks through the empty fairgrounds, attempting to determine more about Caligari's mysterious somnambulist. Significantly, this is precisely the same spot at which the fairgrounds scenes have opened before, where the camera focused on a small monkey gathering pennies at the organ grinder's. Like the monkey, then, Francis is gathering information; in addition, he is seen crouched over, leaning from side to side and crawling on all fours as he attempts to make his was unnoticed down the stairs and around the rocks. A further parallel to the image of the monkey is Francis' clothing: he appears in full suit, cloak, and hat, just as the monkey did, and quite unlike the views to come of Cesare in his skin-tight black leotard. After peeking into Caligari's tent, Francis, who appears hesitant and quite unsure of himself, glances back behind him, and then makes his way around to Caligari's hut, where he then looks up through the bars in the windows.

At this point the camera cuts to a shot of Doctor Caligari, sitting motionless in his small room, apparently looking directly out the window. It is interesting to note that Caligari, trapped in his hut, looks out through bars, very much as if he were in a jail cell. By the doctor's side is the familiar coffin-like box, with a sleeping figure clad in black, which the viewer and Francis both assume to be Cesare. The two figures, motionless and emotionless in their confinement, are a stark contrast to the scenes to come, and serve to show the lack of humanity, emotion and compassion in the doctor's manipulations.

From the sleeping Cesare, rigid in his coffin, the next shot moves to a striking parallel image: a half-iris, already a change from the strong, rigid lines in the previous shots, opens in on Jane as she sleeps, clothed in white flowing garments and surrounded by a soft light coming from the direction of the window. Although she, too, is motionless, her posture (her hands and arms form circles around her head and chest) and the fluidity of her apparel give the scene a sense of constant gentle movement. The viewer's attention is also drawn toward the light coming from the window, centered in the background, surrounded by pillars bearing semicircular designs.

Next the viewer is presented with perhaps the most well-choreographed shot in the film: jumping from the two sleeping figures of Jane and the supposed Cesare, we see at first merely a blank wall, with a strong light from the right casting numerous shadows and shapes. A protrusion near the source of the light seems to resemble a side-lit face, staring fixedly at the shadows on the wall. Once again, a motionless scene, but the stillness is suddenly penetrated by a vague movement in the darkness of the shadows. Slowly the figure of Cesare, in his black leotard, becomes visible. Sneaking along the wall, arms outstretched and reaching up, walking on tip-toe and pressed to the side, Cesare becomes, in fact, himself a shadow as he moves. This scene immediately recalls the shots of Francis sneaking around the deserted fairgrounds, as indeed both men attempt to avoid being seen. Francis was, however, clumsy in his movements, at times on all fours, at other times standing half-bent, and scampering around, mouse-like, as if he was not sure exactly where to go next. Cesare's actions are entirely the opposite: it is clear that he knows precisely where he needs to go, and is adept at such nighttime escapades, as indeed, he blends so perfectly into the shadows. In addition, although time is pressing for him, he moves slowly, carefully, and rhythmically, very much like a cat stalking its prey. The cat, then, cannot be defeated by the mouse, just as Francis cannot hope to win out over Cesare. To emphasize, yet again, the shadowy nature of Cesare's movements, and indeed his feline fluidity, the camera remains focused on the empty wall long after Cesare has left the scene, leaving the viewer questioning whether, in fact, anything had moved through the frame at all.

After a moment, the camera again opens in on Jane, asleep in her white billowy bed; this is essentially the same shot as seen earlier. But this time, the viewer's attention is immediately drawn to the window in the background, as there is a slight motion visible through the window. The camera then cuts much closer to the window, centering it in the frame, almost presenting a point-of-view shot from Jane's bed, although she still lies sleeping. Whereas the view of Jane had opened through a round iris, we now see a diamond-shaped mask framing Cesare, which remains on him all the time he is outside the window. Rising slowly up from the base of the window, almost as if he were floating in mid-air, Cesare stares for a moment into the room. During this stare, there is a cut back to a wider angle shot, and then the camera moves in again to a close-up at the window. At this point Cesare slowly reaches for the bars which guard the window, a reminder of those Francis had peered through at Caligari's hut. He takes one in his hands, then effortlessly breaks it off and casts it to the ground, all the while keeping his stare fixed on Jane in the room. It is then that the long dagger in Cesare's hand becomes visible: it aligns momentarily with the bar he has just thrown away, and then vanishes again into the line of his arm.

As Cesare steps through the window, the camera moves back to show more of the room. Cesare begins his approach towards the bed, climbing delicately over the window sill, pointing his toes and legs as he stalks through the background. The restraint in his movements is again clear: his steps are small, delicate, even effeminate, and his arms are held tightly at his sides, fists pointing straight down. At one point he is then framed by the two chairs in the room, which, significantly, are facing apart. These two chairs could indeed be taken as a symbol for Jane and her fiancé Francis; it is thus Cesare himself who comes between the two, making a division between the two that really never mends. As Cesare's gliding walk continues, one can almost sense the rhythmic nature of his movements: one foot follows the other, in a perfect pattern of restraint and hypnosis. There is not a single twitch here that is out of place, and Caligari's control over Cesare's movements is complete. In essence Cesare has become Caligari's puppet, moving by force of Caligari's will through the room. This restraint imposed by Caligari contrasts sharply with the doctor's own movements, which we have seen to be wide, expressive, and at times uncontrolled. His hypnotism of Cesare, though, forces upon the sleepwalker a rhythmic, unnatural calm totally different from that of his human master.

When he reaches the side of Jane's bed, Cesare gracefully raises his hand bearing the dagger, and points it directly down at Jane. We now see a short glimpse of Cesare's face, eyes wide, clearly hypnotized, not only by Caligari's commands, but by Jane's sleeping beauty as well. It is noteworthy that for the extent of Cesare's approach through the room, the lighting comes exclusively from the sides and back; we are thus unable to see Cesare's face until the moment he bends down to admire the sleeping Jane.

As the dagger begins its descent, the camera moves out to a wider view, where Jane and Cesare are centered in the image. Cesare then falters, hesitates, and begins to lower the knife, at which point the camera focuses in again on Cesare's face, to show his staring eyes. The change here from the previous scene is impressive: not only have Cesare's eyes suddenly lost their glazed-over appearance, but he seems to have acquired a sudden humanity in his facial expressions. His eyes soften, even move, and, perhaps most importantly, his lips move, of their own accord. It is unclear what words he mouths here, but they obviously bear on his inability to complete the task which Caligari has assigned to him. He then reaches down, without the knife, to stroke Jane's hair. Free of the demented control of his master, at least for the moment, Cesare is seen to be a tender, emotional being, quite incapable of harming a creature so beautiful as Jane. He has been set free, both by his love for Jane and by her own innocent beauty.

At this moment, of course, the viewer is captivated by the gentleness evident between the two figures. Nowhere in the film have we seen Jane's fiancé Francis appear so loving towards Jane, although his affection for her is never called into question. But Cesare's actions here go beyond a simple expression of tenderness; indeed, they become almost motherly or sisterly in their soft, gentle manner. This touch of femininity in Cesare's actions is underscored, in fact, throughout the film by numerous parallels. Caligari, for instance, treats Cesare very much like a lover, at times fawning over him, embracing him, touching him at all times tenderly, and even standing guard jealously as the others come to examine him, or waiting patiently by his bed-like coffin at night. In addition, Cesare's walk, especially in the stalking scenes, has nothing masculine about it; if anything, as we have seen, it is feline, like a lioness stalking its prey. Cesare's clothes set off the difference between him and other men yet again: his black leotard is nothing more than a second skin for him, and gives his body a litheness that Francis, Caligari, and the other male figures are lacking entirely. He becomes in all his major scenes essentially a sexless (yet extremely sensual) being, the epitome of androgyny. The final image, of course, of Cesare in the insane asylum, in which he is seen holding a white flower, stroking it tenderly and very effeminately, adds yet a further touch of gender confusion; this scene is strongly reminiscent of a schoolgirl playing the "he loves me, he loves me not" game, only here the roles are reversed, and Cesare is the schoolgirl in love with Jane, who, it is seen, does in fact show some feeling toward the mysterious sleepwalker. Thus when Caligari first shows the sleeping Cesare to Jane, she is at once fascinated and repelled, staring fixedly at Cesare's face and in particular his eyes. It is also noteworthy that the only two people to call Cesare by name are Caligari and Jane herself. Francis refers to him often as the "somnambulist" or the "sleeper," as do the other characters in the film. Even the title credits call him the Somnambulist, and it is only through Caligari's show that we come to know his name.

The tender, motherly expressiveness of Cesare's outreached arm is abruptly destroyed, however, when his hand touches Jane's hair: she awakens, jumps up, screams, and tries to flee. Cesare then reaches down to embrace or capture her, and the camera cuts to a wonderful shot of the two of them, entwined, with both their mouths wide open, both screaming. By sharing this scream, the two figures merge into one, although their differences, brought out by the black and white clothing, are certainly retained. Their entwinement continues throughout the next few shots, as they struggle, Cesare holding back Jane's arms as if to prevent any harm coming to her or to himself. At one point they then fall onto the bed, but Cesare immediately picks Jane up under his arm and heads toward the window. The cut to the two household servants lying in their angular beds, awakened by Jane's screaming, only emphasizes the contrast between Cesare's lithe movements and the world of Jane's household: graceless, confined to their bourgeois world of normalcy and clumsiness. As the figures scamper out of bed , again recalling mice fleeing from the pursuing cat, Cesare is seen making his escape out the window, Jane hanging motionless over his arms. Significantly, in dragging Jane out of the room, Cesare leaves her virginal bed a mess of torn sheets and disheveled white lace, a further rent in the ties binding Jane to her fiancé Francis. The subsequent shots of the figures in white serve to underline this disgrace: running around, frantic, searching different corners of the room, and obviously unsure of what should be done, the parental figures are distraught by the prospect of shame brought upon their daughter. Indeed, the father then falls upon Jane's disheveled bed, sobbing and totally incapable of controlling his emotions. Only when several figures at the window catch a glimpse of the retreating Cesare does the father get up and begin to organize the servants, pushing them away as he too looks out of the window.

It is here that the camera cuts to a point-of-view shot, portraying what the father sees as Cesare makes his escape with Jane over the pointed rooftops of Holstenwall. Like the father's narrow vision, only able to see his daughter being abducted, the circular iris remains tightly closed on Cesare throughout this shot. The strong white light coming from the upper part of the screen suggests a bright moonlit night, while in the lower half of the screen the dark rooftops, Cesare's dark suit, and the shadows make Jane's flowing white robes all the more striking. Another contrast to her feminine, billowy gown are the sharp angles formed by the chimneys and rooftops. Her curvaceous femininity is mirrored, however, by Cesare's lithe movements; instead of the jerky, sudden scampering exhibited by the household servants tracking him, Cesare seems to float over the rooftops, effortlessly pulling Jane with him.

The next crosscut, a marked change from the open sky and free air of the town's skyline, shows Caligari, still sitting motionless, pensively, looking again out through the bars on the window of his small cottage. The black-clad figure of Cesare is still in the box, and at this point the viewer is forced to realize (if he had failed to do so earlier) that Francis has been deceived. And indeed, the next shot completes the deception, for Francis, still peeking through the window, is clearly mesmerized by the motionless pair.

As the camera returns to take up the escape of Cesare again, the familiar wall of shadows returns, and Cesare is seen fleeing along the the same path he had followed before. This time, he does not make the pretense of trying not to be seen, for he knows the men are certain to chase him. Nevertheless, as if it is ingrained in his being, he clings near to the wall, and still presents the appearance of a (now somewhat deformed) shadowing passing over the wall. A moment later follow two of the servants sent out to chase Cesare: like mice, these men jump in and out of the shadows, hesitant and hurried, and totally graceless in comparison to Cesare. Once again, the feminine sleekness of Cesare contrasts with the fumbling masculinity of the bourgeois world from which Jane is being taken.

After this the camera presents a view of the long white path leading away from town, with a large white stain precisely in the center of the frame. Cesare comes running down the path, graceful as ever, but clearly strained under the load of carrying Jane with him. Indeed, he is panting and at one point stumbles. He then stops, tries to catch his breath, and, when he notices his pursuers closing in on him, he drops Jane precisely on the white stain, and continues, obviously exhausted, down the path.

Jane, having been abandoned by Cesare, is quickly surrounded again by the elements of her world, the servants dressed all in white. They huddle around her, concerned, then begin to carry her back up the trail. The rest of the figures hurry on past, chasing after the fleeing Cesare. Although they are never seen to catch up with him, the next shot is most likely a point-of-view shot, showing what the servants see as they watch Cesare reach the end of his flight. Arms outstretched, fingers taut, Cesare seems to blend in perfectly with the spindly trees behind him, as he freezes, a pained and longing expression on his face, then falls, like a leaf from the tree, off the protective wall surrounding the city. Full of imagery, this shot shows clearly the expulsion of Cesare, the "other" who does not fit into conventional societal roles, from the bourgeois environment of the city.

A short shot then ends the escape sequence, showing Francis, still peering through Caligari's window, taking a final look at the motionless figure in the box, then lowering his head, considering, and slowly sneaking off away from the fairgrounds. Francis, unlike Cesare, cannot remove the bars on the window, and thus fails to achieve his goal in searching out the Doctor. Cesare, though, has in a sense succeeded in reaching his aim, since he has broken the reins of his master's control, and found once again his humanity and free will. Nonetheless, even in escaping the doctor's control, he has failed to be reincorporated into society, and has therefore been expelled from the city.

Cesare's expressive movements thus contribute significantly to an understanding of at least the inner frame of the storyline in Dr. Caligari. His sleek, androgynous form and lithe walk bring up the issue not only of his sexuality and thus his relationship with Jane, but indeed call into question his very role within or outside of the bourgeois society. In addition, feline and mouse-like images throughout the escape sequence emphasize the predatory nature of Cesare's sinister deeds, and point out the general ineffectuality of the bourgeois world in dealing with a creature so extraordinary as the sleepwalker. Finally, the control and restrained power evident in so many of Cesare's sleepwalking motions indicate that Caligari's reign over the sleeper is truly complete, dominating both mind and body. Only by breaking this control can Cesare hope to rediscover his lost humanity, but his attempt fails to effect a change in his social isolation. The early German cinema shows in this film one of its most expressive and expressionistic moments, leaving the viewer pondering the complexity of possible interpretive strategies.





Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1994 for German 655 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Expression and Character in the Movements of Cesare." Website Article. 21 September 1994. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/655short1.html>.