Original release: February 26th, 1920
Running time: 71 minutes
Original language: German intertitles (silent film)
Director: Robert Wiene
Writers: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Producers: Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski
We’ve so many things to be thankful to the Weimar Republic for. As an era that saw artists and filmmakers alike flourishing, giving birth to such works as Metropolis (1927), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and The Blue Angel (1930), it also gave us The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
It’s a film whose influence can still be felt in our modern era. Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is a bizarre tale narrated by Francis (Friedrich Fehér) to his friend. In it, Francis and another friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), are visiting a carnival where they see the eccentric Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whom he controls by power of hypnosis.
Dr. Caligari boasts to the men that Cesare is also capable of pre-cognition and is able to answer anything about the future. This leads Alan to ask about how long he has to live and Cesare’s reply is clear – he will die before dawn the next day. Of course, it comes to pass and Alan joins the statistics of recent murders in the German town.
As Francis begins to investigate the doctor, Caligari compels Cesare to kill his fiancée, Jane, but he refuses after being captivated by her beauty. Cesare instead attempts to run off with her but is chased by the townspeople and ends up dying of exhaustion. Meanwhile Francis uncovers that Caligari is in fact responsible for the murders but more shockingly, he’s actually the director at an insane asylum.
After Caligari is rightfully locked away and Francis has finished telling his story a twist ending is revealed, the first of its kind in a film and we learn that it is Francis who is suffering from delusions in the asylum.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is often described as a horror film and one of the earliest ones. Yet it’s something else as well, something much more than a horror film. It’s an Expressionist Film and I’ll tell you exactly why. It’s said that the Expressionist Film was product of two factors; the end of Word War I when the imperial dream collapsed, and Expressionist Art. Expressionism, as opposed to Impressionism, neo-Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism, primarily deals with the escape from nature and the ordinary. It aims to present a view of the world that is unlike the world which we observe in our everyday lives.
With Expressionism, there is more in the artwork about the artists themselves rather than the subject itself. Artists were already aware of the power they held over the viewer and audience in a deliberate attempt to put across their ideas and views. This is especially evident with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari as there are signs throughout the film that tell of the troubled times the German people faced after Word War I.
Expressionism does not merely reproduce these ideas though, Expressionism seeks to intensify an objects most expressive expression for us to see and experience. It’s with this idea (in an Expressionist Film) that we can expect to see a world on screen where lines, curves, shadows, movement, light and dark all play a pivotal role in depicting an image that has more in common with theatre than in film in the conventional sense. It is meant to tell us a story, to excite us, bring us a sense of anxiety and last but not least – to terrify us.
With painted canvases like the ones used in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, the filmmakers were able to kill two birds with one stone. On one hand, they came up with a cost effective way of producing the set for the film rather than constructing it, and on the other, by using painted canvases they were also able to distort the view of reality to such a level with their use of lines, curves, shadow and light and thereby create that Expressionist style which would become a benchmark in Expressionist cinema for years to come.
But what about the actors and the characters portrayed in Expressionist Films such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari? Do they have a part to play in what makes an Expressionist Film? The answer would be “yes”. According to Lotte Eisner, the characters of Caligari and Cesare conform as much to the expressionist style of the film as the set design:
In a scene toward the end of the film, Caligari is placed in a straight jacket and carried off to a room in the asylum and we can clearly see the Expressionist features of the film with the set design. The painted canvas with its twisted windows pointing upwards, the images painted on the walls seem to be electric as if they would be trying to describe what is going on inside Caligari’s own mind and the twisted shadows and curvatures disappearing into the darkness are all indeed part of the Expressionist style.
Caligari’s own movements mirror this style perfectly as well. Imprisoned in his straight jacket he is unable to move or escape, instead he twists, turns, struggles and bends himself to try to break free which at times is what the set seems to be doing as well! The scene then shifts to the garden where the frame tale is revealed and we realise that what we have seen for the past 45 minutes was not actually real. It was a distorted view of the reality presented in the film. This is often an overlooked factor when trying to establish what makes The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari an Expressionist Film, but it is one of the most important Expressionist features on display for us.
I’m sure The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, along with the other films that have survived from the Weimar era, will continue to live on for many, many decades to come. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. They are so fascinating look at and offer much joy for film enthusiasts and historians such as myself. They provide such a blend of ideas and creativity, not just in their narrative but also in their visual form and that’s hard to find in many of our current films, unless they are paying homage to them.
The world may never see another time like it again and while technology makes things faster, smaller and easier, when you watch a film like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari you realise none of those things we have today could make this film any better than it already is, and that’s a perfect example of an Expressionist Film.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .