In the the late 1910s-1920s, a bunch of German filmmakers invented the tone and aesthetics of horror movies amidst postwar defeat drudgery in a movement called “German expressionism.” These films used anti-realism and theatricality to heighten the storytelling and mood. These directors shared the mentality of the “expressionist” artists sought to capture subjective experiences rather than objective realities.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one such film directed by Robert Wiene, is an absolute masterpiece of production design. Everything is sharp edges and jagged angles, all so inhuman and inorganic. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, relentless with disorienting and imbalanced settings. It’s not that the film builds to a few moments that use this dreamlike aesthetic — it’s that every single shot of the film has that effect.
The use of lighting and shadows play a crucial role, too. Bleak, sharp shadows build the sense of a world in disarray, with the very essence of modern life dangerous and falling apart at the seams. Many sets also have a heavily artificial, painted look that expands the expressionistic feeling, as if this film is a Edvard Munch painting brought to life.
The story fits perfectly with these disorienting and evocative visual ideas: A mysterious carny by the name of Dr. Caligari has a coffin with a man named Cesare in a deep, deathlike sleep. Dr. Caligari’s carnival trick is raising Cesare to sleep-walking life.
Sure enough, as soon as Dr. Caligari’s show premiers, people in the village start mysteriously being stabbed in the night, including the friend of Francis, our protagonist. As the plot progresses, dual realities begin to emerge — a false one constructed by the modern institutions, where an ordinary local thug is doing the murders, and one constructed by Francis, which blames Caligari. The truth of Dr. Caligari’s villainy comes to light, and his sleep-walking minion Cesare is stopped just before murdering Francis’s lover, Jane. Worse, we learn that Caligari is the director of the local mental hospital and asylum, where he plucked Cesare from — the very man who should be curing the modern poisons of the world is perpetrating them.
That would seem to be it, but (spoiler!) in a twist ending from a framing story, we learn that Francis, himself, is an asylum patient — and he’d hallucinated the whole story. Every character we had seen existed in a different form in the asylum, including a benevolent version of Dr. Caligari.
It’s an astonishing final twist, if a bit old-hat these days; “it was all a dream”. But it’s also a troublesome ending; it somewhat undercuts every idea laid out in both the storytelling and the visual design leading up to that: That modern society and corrupted institutions are bringing us to darkness in a modern world that’s increasingly inhuman and disorienting, and those we should trust are the ones tearing us down and constructing false realities. By making the human center of the film the actual lunatic, and the evil doctor in fact a kindly caretaker, those concepts are flipped on their head in a way that undermines their impact.
Nonetheless, it’s a riveting horror story from start to end. Even with the befuddling twist, the movie gives an overwhelming sensation of modernity crumbling upon the viewer.
If everything about the film’s aesthetic and cinematography is unparalleled brilliance and innovation, the camerawork itself is not especially adventurous. The camera is still essentially the entire time, featuring mostly medium shots, as if we’re watching a stage. Though this heightens the film’s theatricality, it flattens its cinematic quality. The film also overuses irises — the technique of blacking out all but a specific portion of the frame to draw our focus — to the point of distraction. Nonetheless, the production design is so good that it easily overcomes the basic direction; the film’s overall visual effect is truly remarkable and unique.
While a few of my reactions were mixed, I can say without reservation that this film is a treasure and worth watching by anyone who enjoys horror or art films. It’s certainly the first feature-length film in my tour through film history that I’ve enjoyed purely as a movie buff, not historian, and would consider watching again for pleasure.
(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 6. Up next is yet another DW Griffith film, Broken Blossoms. Thankfully, it’s much shorter than the previous two Griffith entries, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.)