Intent versus structure

The cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 1920.
Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer.
Directed by Robert Wienne

The case: the film, told in flashbacks, is about Francis who discovers that a magician Caligari is behind bloody murders. Francis tracks Caligari to the insane asylum where Caligari works as the head doctor. Francis accuses Caligari. Then .....

The perception: Francis ends up himself in the asylum put there by Caligari to ridicule his accusations as delusions. (A sane perceptiveness loses to the brutal system. Not unlike in “One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest.”)

The study: the watching over, I started reading about the flick and learned that the ending was supposed to reveal that from the beginning Francis was the patient of the insane asylum, and Caligari was in fact his doctor. A good doctor. The film was taking place inside a sick mind and describe a delusion.

I got alarmed! Can’t I get a simple, classic story right? I kept reading and found some consolation: wikipedia announced: “The producers, who wanted a less macabre ending, imposed upon the director the idea that everything turns out to be Francis' delusion. The original story made it clear that Caligari (...) was responsible for a number of deaths.”

Alas, the intent of the writers was so clear and strong that it has gotten into this viewer and has completely taken over his perception of the entire story including the imposed ending and some other third act sequences (like arresting of Dr. Caligari - which in my interpretation could be the only fantasy in the film).

More reading revealed that I wasn’t alone in my perception, the ending was ambiguous or suspicious to many. The original starting point of the story, backed up by the brilliant direction and the production design, prevailed. (What an absolutely fantastic idea to paint light and shadows on the already distorted walls! Not to mention other expressionistic tricks everybody describes.)

The conclusion: the intention is often stronger than structure. Visionary directing can totally alter the story. Or: the screenplay structure rules only so much. It can be changed with the help of visceral, emotional images.

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