in about 100 words or less
I originally watched Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) in late 2008, near the very beginning of my continuing multi-year journey into the 1001 Movies You Need to See Before You Die project. At that time, I had seen very few silent movies, other than a handful of comic shorts and fragments of feature-length films. Even with so little reference from the silent era, I recognized the uniqueness of this film, particularly from the perspectives of art direction and set design. Since that time, Caligari has become my touchstone for expressionist cinema, and arguably the pinnacle of this style from the silent era. The distorted angular sets and use of light and shadow intensify the film’s twisted plot, which employs mental illness as its vehicle for telling this dark story of mind control, madness and murder. The result is a truly original psychological horror film with an aberrant atmosphere befitting the narrator of this story – a patient of an insane asylum.
The film’s relatively complex plot and sophisticated construction begins and ends with an old man named Francis (Friedrich Feher), who relates his story while sitting on a park bench. Told as a flashback, the viewer is transported back some time to the village of Holstenwall, where we meet a wild-looking carnival showman named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who pursues a licence to open his fair. The main attraction of the fair is Cesare (Conrad Veidt) – a somnambulist whose trance state suggests that he is under Caligari’s malevolent influence. Emerging from a coffin-like wooden box, Cesare’s appearance and movements are a masterful and nightmarish creation, perhaps only surpassed in silent cinema by Count Orloff in Nosferatu (1922).
Following reported murders which appear to be connected to Dr. Caligari, Francis and his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) and her father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger) become entangled in an investigation which leads to Jane’s attempted kidnapping. Amidst the confusion, and a case of mistaken identity involving Cesare, Dr. Caligari flees from the town, leading Francis to an insane asylum, where we learn that Dr. Caligari is in fact the director of the hospital. To his horror, Francis also discovers that the doctor is obsessed with an 11th-century mystic (also named Caligari, who had conducted “experiments” with his own Cesare). Along with Francis, we witness Dr. Caligari being led off by staff in a straight jacket, to become an inmate in his own facility.
In the film’s wonderfully unexpected postscript, the audience is returned to the park bench, where we learn that Francis is also an asylum inmate, along with fellow patients, Jane and Cesare, and that the man Francis believes is Dr. Caligari, is in fact the asylum director!
The photography on Caligari feels almost theatrical, relying on each scene to be played out after another, with minimal inter-cutting or other more cinematic manipulation which was becoming more commonplace after the unprecedented success of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Arguably, it was the explicit lack of realism which Wiene had sought for his film, and which he achieved by shooting Caligari entirely within the confines of a studio. In so doing, Wiene’s ability to precisely control the film’s visual style allowed him to restrict any sense of the natural world, which enhanced the disturbed mental state of his characters, and established the film’s surreal mood.
Although many commentaries on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are fixed on elements of set design, lighting, and costumes, it is easy to overlook the importance of the performances and the role that they play in supporting the mood and style of the film. The angular body movements, gestures and striking facial expressions of the principal actors are stylistically consistent with the expressionist themes of the film.
As a film that epitomizes German Expressionism, the bold artistic style of Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari helped define the horror genre, and contributed to the development of film noir. It has also served as inspiration for a number of filmmakers, including James Whale, Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton. In Frankenstein (1931), Whale’s production and set design is influenced by Caligari’s expressionist style, which greatly contributes to this classic film’s look and mood. With Hitchcock, whose roots were firmly planted in German Expressionist cinema, the use of psychological horror, as seen in Caligari is found throughout his body of work. More recently, Caligari’s artistic design is clearly evident in Tim Burton’s work, in films such as and Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare before Christmas (1993).
On the surface, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed as simply a psychological horror film, however, it is suggested by many that the film has a number of sociopolitical themes, including human rights, authoritarianism, and the manipulation and control of the German people. Of these, I suggest that the most obvious, and perhaps important subtext is found in Wiene’s clever manipulation of the film’s audience. As a viewer, it is disconcerting to eventually learn that the entire story is wholly unreliable, since it was narrated by a patient in an insane asylum. As an unwitting participant in this waking nightmare, we have been tricked, and indeed, our minds controlled by the filmmaker. It is clear that this was the Wiene’s intent, as the film’s original German promotional materials in early in 1920, warned: “Du musst Caligari werden!”, “You must become Caligari!”
In addition to the many artistic visual merits of this film, which have afforded it a place in cinema history, it is primarily included in my 100 Favorites for its creative screenplay. In its day, Caligari must have surprised and bewildered viewers in the same manner that similarly provocative films, such as Fight Club (1999) and Memento (2000) have done in recent years. As one of the most truly engaging and enjoyable silent films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a masterwork that somehow manages to get better with time (Klaus Ming April 2016).