The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may not be the first horror film of all time, but it undoubtedly is one of the first to have a major influence on later movies in the genre. Directed by Robert Wiene (whose other films include Fear and Raskolnikow), Caligari exemplifies the expressionist style of silent movie-making that gained a foothold in Germany in the early 1920s and that would inspire the better-remembered Nosferatu (1922) based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though not adapted from a work of literature, Caligari set the bar in capturing the macabre on camera, managing to be both cerebral and mesmerizingly creepy.
The film is a meta-narrative flashback (a seminal use of this technique) told from the perspective of Francis (Friedrich Fehér), a young man who attends a carnival in the German town of Holstenwall with his friend Alan (Hans Twardowski). Alan and Francis are part of a love triangle along with Jane (Lil Dagover), whom Francis observed walking about in a trancelike state before launching into his flashback. The sinister Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) has brought a strange act to the carnival: the mummylike somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who reputedly has powers of clairvoyance. His prediction that Alan will die before dawn breaks comes true. All we see of the perpetrator is his shadow (a precursor to the famous vampire shadow in Nosferatu), but we’re pretty sure that Cesare is the murderer when Caligari orders him to slay Jane as well.
So I’ve revealed the murderer. Uh-oh. Well, not to worry, because Caligari is less a whodunit than an antediluvian psychological thriller with a twist ending—again, a concept that the film pioneered. The primary theme that it explores, through the metaphor of sleepwalking, is the blurred line between fantasy and reality. Those unable to distinguish between the two may dream up fantastic fables or suffer from psychological delusions; perhaps they could even commit murder without knowing they’ve done it. Think about it—does Francis’s tale seem credible or like the ramblings of a psychiatric patient?
In cinematographic terms, the biggest clue to the film’s distortion of reality is the sets, which resemble the scenery in a theatrical production. With their contortions and jagged edges, they call to mind a Van Gogh or Dali painting. In particular, one might note the village streets, which proceed in a zig-zaggy maze of directions to reflect the plot’s twists.
The spectral music (at least in the version of the film that I saw) constitutes another important layer of ambience, enhancing the visual experience. Decidedly impressionistic, the wayward harmonies sound like something out of Shostakovich or Prokofiev.
The film’s use of chiaroscuro effects is also memorable; the contrast between light and dark is realized in a way that was only possible in black and white. My favorite scene in the film—Caligari’s presentation of Cesare to the carnival spectators—is notable for this technique. Light shines on both Caligari’s demented leer and the pasty orbs of the creature’s pupils, which are contrasted against the darkness of the pall in the carnival chamber. It’s hard not to observe a parallel with the opening eyes of the bandaged corpse in The 1932 B-movie The Mummy starring Boris Karloff. Be that as it may, this scene from Caligari is one of the iconic moments in early horror.
One element that might put off modern viewers is the actors’ histrionics, particularly their expressions of anguish and terror. But this is a natural aspect of expressionism in silent films. In a world without words, such emotiveness conveys an additional angst that, in a talkie, would normally be perceptible in an actor’s vocal intonation.
While silent films might seem hopelessly antiquated to some modern viewers, Caligari is certainly one that no serious film buff can afford to avoid. It’s a suspenseful story with grotesquely colorful characters and intriguing plotlines. And it manages to keep you entranced without depicting heads being lopped off or stomachs being disemboweled. What more could a thinking horror lover ask for?
Joe’s Grade: A+