The first thing everyone notices and best remembers about
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) is the film's bizarre look. The
actors inhabit a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows,
staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks
like knives. These radical distortions immediately set the film apart from all
earlier ones, which were based on the camera's innate tendency to record
The stylized sets, obviously two-dimensional, must have been a
lot less expensive than realistic sets and locations, but I doubt that's why
the director, Robert Wiene, wanted them. He is making a film of delusions and
deceptive appearances, about madmen and murder, and his characters exist at
right angles to reality. None of them can quite be believed, nor can they
believe one another.
film opens in the German town of Holstenwall, seen in a drawing as houses like
shrieks climbing a steep hill. After a prologue, a story is told: A sideshow
operator named Caligari (Werner Krauss) arrives at the fair to exhibit the
Somnambulist, a man he claims has been sleeping since his birth 23 years ago.
This figure, named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), sleeps in a coffin and is hand-fed by
the crazed-looking doctor, who claims he can answer any question.
hero, Francis (Frederich Feher), visits the show with his friend Alan (Hans
Heinz von Twardowski), who boldly asks, "When will I die?" The reply
is chilling: "At first dawn!" At dawn Alan is dead. Suspicion falls
on Cesare. Francis keeps watch all night through a window as Caligari sleeps
next to the closed coffin. But the next morning, his fiancee, Jane (Lil
Dagover), has been abducted. Does that clear the doctor and the Somnambulist
itself, this is not a startling plot. The film's design transforms it into something
very weird, especially as Cesare is seen carrying the unconscious Jane and is
pursued by a mob. The chase carries them through streets of stark lights and
shadows and up a zigzagging mountain trail. Caligari, meanwhile, is followed by
Francis as he returns to where he apparently lives -- the insane asylum, where
he is the ... director! Evidence is discovered by Francis and the local police
that Caligari, influenced by an occult medieval manuscript, yearned to find a
somnambulist and place him under a hypnotic spell, subjecting him to his will.
case can be made that "Caligari" was the first true horror film.
There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial "Fantomas"
made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world.
"Caligari" creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy.
In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.
is said to be the first example in cinema of German Expressionism, a visual
style in which not only the characters but the world itself is out of joint. I
don't know of another film that used its extreme distortions and discordant
angles, but its over-all attitude certainly cleared the way for "The
Golem," "Nosferatu," "Metropolis" and "M."
In one of the best-known books ever written about film, From Caligari to Hitler, the art historian Siegfried Kracauer
argued that the rise of Nazism was foretold by the preceding years of German
films, which reflected a world at wrong angles and lost values. In this
reading, Caligari was Hitler and the German people were sleepwalkers under his
don't believe the films caused Nazism in Germany, and whether
they predicted it depends a great deal on hindsight. What is certain is that
the Expressionist horror films created the most durable and bulletproof of
genres. No other genre has box-office appeal all by itself, although film noir,
also deeply influenced by Expressionism, comes close. All a horror film need
promise is horror -- the unspeakable, the terrifying, the merciless, the lurching
monstrous figure of destruction. It needs no stars, only basic production
values, just the ability to promise horror.
1920s were the decade that saw the rise of the Dada and Surrealist movements.
The first rejected all pretense, all standards, all sincerity. It was a
profound expression of hopelessness and alienation. It led to the rise of the
related art movement Surrealism, which cut loose from order and propriety,
rejected common values, scorned tradition and sought to overthrow society with anarchy.
It's said such movements were a reaction to the horror of World War I, which
upset decades of relative tranquility and order, threw the European nations
into unstable new relationships and presented the inhuman spectacle of modern
mechanized battle. After the brutality of trench warfare, it would be difficult
to return to landscapes and still life.
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" as a viewing experience must have been unsettling
to the audiences of 1920. The original Variety review, which cheerfully reveals
the ending, tries in its stilted wording to express enthusiasm: "This has
resulted in a series of actions so perfectly dovetailed as to carry the story
through at a perfect tempo. Robert Wiene has made perfect use of settings
designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig, settings that
squeeze and turn and adjust the eye and through the eye the mentality."
the prose suggests chiropractic, I imagine some viewers indeed felt squeezed,
turned and adjusted by the images. The film today still casts its spell. I
viewed the version on a DVD from Kino, which (unusually with silent films of
its vintage) includes all the original footage. The film has not been digitally
restored to remove all flaws, but in a way those that remain --spots, blemishes
-- add to the effect. You feel as if you're watching an old record of an old
story, which includes within itself an even older one. The original film was
tinted, so there are no purely black-and-white scenes, only those mostly in
shades of reddish-brown and slate blue.
is fond of the iris shot, which opens or closes upon a scene like an eye. This
makes the point that we are looking and are privileged to witness events
closed to other people. He also sparingly uses a device of superimposing words
on the image to show Alan feeling surrounded by voices. Wiene's closeups lean
heavily on Caligari's fierce and sinister scowl, the dewy innocence of Jane,
and the wide-eyed determination of Alan. The Somnambulist is not very
expressive -- he certainly lacks the charisma of Frankenstein's monster, who in
a way he inspired -- and is most often seen in long shot, as if the camera
considers him an object, not a person.
sets are presented, as they must be, in mostly longer shots, establishing their
spiky and ragged points and edges. The visual environment plays like a
wilderness of blades; the effect is to deny the characters any place of safety
or rest. It isn't surprising that the "Caligari" set design inspired
so few other films, although its camera angles, lighting and drama can clearly
be seen throughout film noir, for example in the visual style of "The
Third Man" (1949).
Wiene (1873-1938) began his career in 1913 and directed 47 films, including
"Raskolnikow," based onCrime
and Punishment,and the
famous "The Hands of Orlac" (1924). He fled the rise of Hitler and at
the time of his death was working on "Ultimatum" (1938), with another
refugee, Erich von Stroheim. Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), another refugee, made
119 films and was a major star of the time, whose credits included the great
"The Man Who Laughs" (1928) and of course
"Casablanca"(1942), where he played Major Strasser, who met an
unexpected end at the airport. (All three titles are also in my Great Movies
is part of Kino's excellent German Expressionism set and is available