We’re approaching the end of the year and so, I felt the need to acknowledge the centennial of one of the most important films ever made. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in 1920. The film was directed by Robert Wiene and, as far as I’m concerned, changed film history forever.
For those who don’t know it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a German silent film released in 1920 that is widely considered the first great work of the horror genre. It is also known as the most representative film of the German Expressionist movement. This was an early 20th-century movement inspired by the aftermath of the First World War, that had left Germany feeling lost and disenchanted.
Stylistically, German Expressionism emphasized the artist’s inner feelings of ideas over replicating reality. And of course, it wasn’t only utilized in cinema. It involved all of the arts, including painting, poetry, music, theatre and so on. However, I would go as far as to say that today, German Expressionism is best known through cinema, despite its relatively short lifespan. And that is in no small part thanks to the legacy of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
When psychoanalysis was cool
Briefly, the film revolves around a mysterious and menacing title doctor arriving at a small, rural village with his companion Cesare. The latter is a man in an eternal state of sleep, who can be ordered to perform his master’s commands, including a series of murders.
It’s important to note that around this time, debates around psychoanalysis were very popular among the intellectual classes. The works of Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries were prominently talked about and greatly influenced all of the art forms, including exponents of Surrealism and Expressionism.
By revolving around the theme of mind control, hypnosis and matters of the brain, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was perfectly attuned to this trend.
These themes were accentuated by the vibrant and eccentric style, which remains legendary to this day. This was, in fact, arguably the first film to utilize surrealist production design in a major way. There had been precedents, to be sure, particularly in the early cinematic period known as the “cinema of attractions.” This was a time when film performers would play to the screen and experiment with filmmaking equipment trickery. Among the most popular films of this time were ones starring magicians.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was quite different. Here, the effects and production design techniques were perfectly integrated into a cohesive story, and the bizarre set pieces created a world where shadows and light play enhanced its psychological dimension, giving it a nightmarish quality.
Also, there is limited use of trickery as such and the camera mostly sticks to a reproduction of the images as recreated on the set. It is a well-known fact that even the shadows were painted directly onto the set, giving the look a newfound legitimacy and otherworldliness.
It’s also important to note that at this time, German cinema was arguably the most important in the world and influenced the cinematic output of several other countries. The entire world looked at what German trailblazers did and a few years later, many of those same trailblazers would flee to the United States, prompted by the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party. This exodus greatly lent legitimacy to American film and prompted its unstoppable growth on a global scale.
More than style
There are several other acclaimed works generally included in the German Expressionist canon. These include Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920); F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Yet, none are quite as loyal to the Expressionist movement’s ethos as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Because Expressionism calls for a detachment from all forms of realism, scholars have questioned whether a German Expressionist film has ever existed at all. After all, cinema exists as a sequence of mechanically reproduced series of images that can do nothing but replicate something that truly existed. In this sense, its link with reality can never truly be broken.
This may be true. However, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s Expressionist dimension extends beyond its aesthetic qualities. It is embodied by the character of Cesare, interpreted by Conrad Veidt in a wonderfully stylized performance. While all throughout the film, we see Cesare commit those terrible crimes, we are also aware that he has no power over his own existence or any of the decisions he appears to make. He is played as a puppet on a string by the puppetmaster Dr. Caligari.
This sophisticated predicament makes him a troublingly ambivalent character. At this time, cinema largely tended to separate the bad guys from the good guys and to make that distinction quite clear. With Cesare, we are unsure whether we should wish for his inevitable demise or side with him, at least in the hope that he should rid himself of the shackles of Dr. Caligari.
The significance of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was prominently discussed in Sigfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, one of the great books of film theory, which explores how the cinema of the Weimar Republic anticipated the rise of the Nazi dictator.
By its very nature, Expressionism encourages both artists and viewers to question everything they see. An application of such techniques to the cinema, particularly as seen in Wiene’s movie, both liberated the art form from conventions while preventing it from completely committing itself to abstraction.