THE DOCTOR IS IN: Dr. Caligari, Hannibal Lecter, & the portrayal of the ‘Evil’ Psychologist

Hannibal Lecter - Home | Facebook
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Wikipedia
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“You all think I’m insane! It isn’t true! It’s the doctor who’s insane!” – Francis, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’

The Horror film may be the most popular genre of all films. Slashers, Zombies, Demons all haunt our dreams and force us to watch the movies with the lights on, sometimes. Of all the famous evil characters from Nosferatu to Michael Myers, are any of them more terrifying than the ‘Evil’ Doctor? Two legendary characters from legendary films prove that the answer very well could be No.

In 1920, a film was produced in Germany that has been unparalleled in the 100 years that have passed. The film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, is so rich in content from its abstract sets to the chilling acting by its two stars, Werner Krauss(Dr. Caligari) and Conrad Veidt(Cesare, the Somnambulist). The story is told by a patient, Francis, in a mental asylum as he recalls how he has ended up in the hospital at the hands of the infamous, Dr. Caligari. Francis goes on to relay how his best friend was murdered after visiting the ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ at the Holstenwell town fair. It was Dr. Caligari’s subject, Cesare the Somnabmulist who told Francis’ friend that he would die before the following dawn. Francis is convinced that the mad doctor is responsible and after Cesare attempts to murder his girlfriend, Jane, and kidnaps her he makes it his mission to reveal the truth about Dr. Caligari. Francis discovers evidence that it is true that Dr. Caligari is using the somnambulist, hypnotizing him and ordering him to kill at his will. Francis, however, makes the grave mistake of bursting into the mental hospital and accusing Dr. Caligari of being a murderer. The lesson here appears to be ‘Never question a Doctor’ as Francis loses his argument and it Caligari who then recommends he be committed to the hospital as a patient.

Writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz crafted the story out of their shared experiences during World War 1 in Germany. Both men disagreed with the war and were harsh critics of the psychologists who seemed to be cooperating with the German government and forcing young men to continue fighting. ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is their look at the consequences of having blind faith in not just the government but also the medical establishment. Mayer and Janowitz were also aware of the sadistic nature of some psychologists in Germany who used electro-shock therapy to make men who did not want to fight so uncomfortable that they went running back to the front in order to get away from their doctor. This masterpiece of a film directed by Robert Wiene is certainly a case of ‘art imitating life’ in a very frightening way.

Hannibal Lecter has long been considered the scariest villain in film history due to his pure evil and an outstanding performance by Anthony Hopkins. Lecter, a psychologist and convicted murderer/cannibal steals the movie even though he is only onscreen for a total of 15 minutes. His most terrifying quality is that at moments when he converses with Jodie Foster we can see a very distinguished and intelligent psychologist. In an instant, Hopkins can flip the switch and unleash the monster more terrifying than Frankenstein and Freddie Kruger put together. The difference between Lecter and Caligari lies in the fact that Lecter has been caught and convicted and shows no denial or remorse for his dark side. Dr. Caligari, however, maintains his facade as the ‘good’ doctor when we all know he is the total opposite.

“I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Dr. Lecter’s bone chilling last line to Clarice before stalking his next victim. “Now I also know how to cure him.” Dr. Caligari’s “Compassion” toward Francis as he wrongfully commits him to the mental asylum and we are left to only guess at the horrors the Doctor has in store for his new patient. ‘The Doctor is IN’…in this case, Insane!

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