restricted access Caligari and Cipolla: Mann's "Mario and the Magician"
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Caligari and Cipolla:
Mann's "Mario and the Magician"

In "On the Film" (1928), published the same year that he wrote one of his greatest stories, "Mario and the Magician," Mann expressed enthusiasm for the cinema and acknowledged the possibility of its fruitful influence on fiction: "lately I have come to entertain feelings for this phenomenon of our time that amount to a lively interest, even almost to a passion. . . . The film possesses a technique of recollection, of psychological suggestion, a mastery of detail in men and in things, from which the novelist, though scarcely the dramatist, might learn much" (Past Masters 263, 265-266). Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), the most widely [End Page 235] discussed film of its time, had a direct influence on the atmosphere, plot, characters, and political theme of Mann's story.1

The film portrays a contemporary incarnation of an eighteenth-century hypnotist who had traveled through northern Italy and forced his medium, Cesare, to commit numerous murders. Imitating his Italian alter-ego, the modern Dr. Caligari reenacts his crimes in Germany. In Mann's story the sinister Italian hypnotist also wreaks havoc on the Germans on holiday in northern Italy. And the narrator of the story remarks: "Perhaps more than anywhere else the eighteenth century is still alive in Italy, and with it the charlatan and mountebank type so characteristic of the period" (149). Dr. Caligari—whose name is an anagram of the Sardinian capital, Cagliari, and suggests the emperor Caligula—becomes Cavaliere Cipolla; Cesare becomes Mario; and the innocent beloved, Jane, becomes Silvestra.

The film begins with the young hero Francis exclaiming: "Everywhere there are spirits. . . . They are all around us. . . . They have driven me from hearth and home, from my wife and my children" (Wiene 41). The atmosphere of the expressionist film is menacing and macabre—nothing is real, nothing is natural—and filled with sinister omens, acts of terror, and moments of panic. In Mann's story, the atmosphere remained "unpleasant in the memory. From the first moment the air of the place made us uneasy, we felt irritable, on edge" (135). The threatening nationalism in Italy, far from the narrator's hearth and home, causes constant friction and discord. As he enters the unfamiliar and unreal world of the magician's public hall ("where during the season there had been a cinema with a weekly programme" [146]), he is increasingly apprehensive about the welfare of his children. He wants to protect them and to leave the theater, as he had wished to leave the oppressive holiday resort, but he is much more absorbed in the necromantic spectacle than he is willing to admit.

When Caligari seeks a permit to perform at the fair, he is treated rudely by an arrogant bureaucrat perched on a clerk's high stool. Caligari bitterly resents the oppression by official authority and feels compelled to revenge himself against society. The entire first part of "Mario and the Magician" catalogues, with increasing frustration and rage, the series of personal humiliations that the German family suffers at the hands of the chauvinistic foreigners. They are forced to give up their table on the restaurant veranda; they are evicted from the hotel when the Princess complains of their child's harmless cough; and they become an offense to public morals when their small daughter, playing on the beach, innocently removes and rinses her bathing suit. These incidents help to create the hostile atmosphere that leads directly to "the shocking business of Cipolla, that dreadful being who seemed to incorporate, in so fateful and so humanly impressive a way, all the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole" (135).

Both the film and the story reflect the precarious democracy of the Weimar Republic, which swayed between tyranny and chaos in the fifteen years between Germany's defeat in the Great War and the Nazi takeover in January, 1933. Both works warned about the dangers of the traditional German belief in obedience [End Page 236] to authority. As S. S. Prawer observes of Caligari: "The [origins of the] questions it leads us to ask about . . . social legitimation, about the protection of...


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