Asylum and Abyss: The history of the frame story

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The inmates are running the asylum. At least one is. The sleepy town of Hostenwall in Germany is in a panic because a murderer is on the loose, killing people in their beds at night. A man named Francis seeks answers because his friend (and rival) has been murdered and the girl he loves has been carried off.

Francis follows a carnival barker who he believes is responsible for the killings and the villain slinks off into an insane asylum. Francis tries to alert the doctors that a dangerous madman has escaped from their care, but it turns out that the murderous mastermind is the director of the asylum.

That was the story, but it, like the hero, got framed. The screenplay for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ends with the murderer’s foul plots discovered, the hero freed and the couple united: love triumphing over institutional evil.

The film’s director, Robert Wiene, felt something was wrong, though. Critics have argued over whether political forces or public appetites influenced him, but in the end, a story with the asylum’s director manipulating a sleepwalker into killing people was just too risky.

So Wiene built a frame story which turned it all into the fever dream of the mad Francis, who is only raving. The asylum director is not a murderer but a kind soul who at last knows how to cure him.

It’s quite a reversal. That’s the power of a frame story.

The authors of the screenplay, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, hated it and protested violently. Siegfried Krakauer in From Caligari to Hitler wrote:

“Janowitz and Mayer knew why they raged against the framing story: it perverted, if not reversed, their intrinsic intentions. While the original story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene’s Caligari glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness.”

Frame it

The frame was born at the same time as storytelling, because every story has a storyteller. It was a short fall from there to the nested narrative, when the first storyteller told the first story of a storyteller telling a story. But if a frame story can work to pin a tale to a specific political or social reality, it also can serve to dislodge it.

As always, the French seem to have a better way of phrasing it: mise en abyme. Translated literally that means “placed into the abyss.” Self-referential iteration, a minor variant on the frame story, can quite literally drop the floor out of a story, plunging it into the infinite darkness below. Parentheticals are addictive, and once you start nesting narratives like Russian dolls, there appears to be no lower limit.

Cloud Atlas, a novel from a decade ago recently contorted into a film, showed admirable restraint in nesting only six stories within each other, wrapping each one up on the other side. David Mitchell drew inspiration from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller…, which delighted in combining frame stories with mise en abymes to start 10 stories and never finished any of them.

Calvino, in turn, was drawing upon the traditions of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and The Decameron by Boccaccio, with their fantastical spirals of storytellers telling their best stories about storytelling.

The queen of them all was Scheherazade, who kept herself and all the virgins of her kingdom alive by telling stories within stories within stories for at least One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The book itself is alive and no two translations contain the same stories. The interplay of frame story with story creates a endless loop of potentialities that enrich and deepen the narrative.

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The unreliable narrator

In one sense, frame stories helped people trust the narrator, who is inherently subjective and therefore unreliable.

Journalism began with the belief that a simple reporting of facts strips away the frame, but as we now recognize, the frame of the journalist still colors the news story with assumptions and prejudices.

Perhaps the madmen still run the asylum. It depends on who is telling the story.

Calagari is still a great film, in part because the original story has survived intact. The frame story may have satisfied the censors, but the wild, artistic genius unleashed on the main story makes the frame look cheap and untrustworthy.

We are left with impression that the murderer got away after all. And perhaps he did.

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