The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, adapted by Amanda Dalton

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BBC Radio 3, 26 October 2008

Amanda Dalton’s adaptation of the classic 1919 film proved ideal material for radio. The combination of surrealism, music, impressionist imagery and the abrupt shift in tone, from wild farce to tragedy worked extremely well in a production (by Susan Roberts) that combined acting, sound-effects and suitably eerie music to create a post-1919 Germany where morality had quite simply broken down. No one trusted anyone else; the watchword seemed to be to exploit people for personal gain, whatever the consequences.


Superficially the plot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is straightforward enough; in a small German town several murders are committed and the finger of suspicion points at the mysterious Caligari, who is believed to have interred all of his victims in a cabinet buried deep in his house. As the action unfolds, it emerges that the eponymous Caligari does not exist; he remains a figment of the citizens’ imagination, a convenient scapegoat for their suspicions. By this method Dalton captured the sense of paranoia in post-war Germany. Although they had not lost the War – despite signing the Armistice in 1918 – the people still blamed one another for their presumed ‘failure.’ Dr. Caligari was not a real person, but functioned as an object for people’s feelings of resentment and fear for their future. Such emotions were not without justification, as Germany entered a period of economic meltdown with inflation running rampant.


Radio 3’s scheduling of this production proved uncannily appropriate: currently Western Europe is experiencing a similar period of economic crisis, with falling share prices and rising unemployment. In this kind of environment, it is highly likely that people will search for another Dr. Caligari as a scapegoat for their anxieties.