The silent expressionist nightmare masterpiece discussed.
While there had been films dealing with horror since the birth of cinema (1895’s The Haunted Castle generally accepted as the first horror film), it’s usually agreed that horror cinema as we know it was born in post World War One Germany, with a handful of films that set the style and tone for the entire genre. First and chief among them was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, shot in 1919 and released a year later. This film set out the tropes of the genre so well that seen now, the film inevitably seems rather hokey and cliched in narrative terms – it has the mad doctor, the victim-monster he uses as his instrument of evil, the beautiful girl who finally breaks the spell, the scenes of the monsters carrying the girl off over the rooftops, asylum scenes and the flashback structure featuring an unreliable narrator. We have to remember that it was the first film to use these ideas. These ideas became stereotypes of the genre for decades entirely because they were included here. And yes, Caligari did not appear in a vacuum – there were certainly literary precedents that it took ideas from – but it brought all these ideas together for the first time. A whole chunk of horror cinema appeared in its wake, and the film is enormously important for that reason alone. That it proves to still be a visually startling film with a number of impressive moments of horror and weirdness is just the icing on the cake.
Told in flashback by protagonist Francis (Friedrich Fehér), the story sees our hero and his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) competing good-naturedly for the affections of Jane (Lil Dagover) when they visit the local fair and take in the show by Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), a showman with a somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Weidt) who can predict the future. When Alan asks how long he has left to live, the answer is stark: until the next dawn. Sure enough, Alan is found dead the next day.
You might expect unwarranted suspicion to fall on his friend and love rival, but the police in this film seem spectacularly useless, and soon have arrested a local vagrant for the murder, alongside another pair of attacks. Francis, meanwhile, has decided to investigate Caligari and Cesare, baffled by the uncanny prediction and suspecting their involvement in the murders. As he watches the pair apparently sleeping, Cesare somehow appears in Jane’s bedroom, and is set to attack her when her beauty awakens him – scooping her in his arms, he flees, soon followed by Caligari, who is tracked to a local lunatic asylum. Is he a patient there? Or something altogether more worrying?
Caligari‘s story might seem like a reasonably straight-forward horror movie narrative, but the things that makes this an enduring classic is not so much the story – though again, we should never under estimate the influence of this plot on future films – but the visual style, which gives the film the feel of a nightmare – or perhaps, appropriately, the fantasies of a lunatic imagination. The Expressionist set designs of designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, featuring odd angles, painted backdrops and shadows and strange, nightmarish visual flourishes, are astonishing. Rarely has a film so perfectly captured the sense of deranged fantasy as this does, ensuring that the viewer is unsettled immediately, knowing that things are not quite right here, that the story we are being told is at best a skewed version of reality. It’s been said by many people that the ending of the film is a cop-out (and another pioneering genre moment, influencing movies where the filmmakers felt nervous about not having a rational explanation for the events shown), but in all honesty, it makes a lot of sense given what we have seen – and still offers up a certain ambiguity about how much, if anything, of what we have just seen is true. Certainly, the final shot of the film suggests that the Caligari we have seen in the story might not simply be a work of fiction.
Of course, seen today, the melodramatic pantomiming of the cast – which at the time would have been seen as entirely normal – gives the film an additional sense of the weird. Over-acting is the necessary curse of silent cinema, but when seen within a film that has such an exaggerated and insane visual style to begin with and which is very much caught up in themes of madness, then a cast who all behave with heightened levels of hysteria and wildly projected emotional expressions seems entirely appropriate. So when Francis reacts with horror at the very sight of his landlady before she tells him that Alan is dead, it makes perfect sense. Caligari’s twitchy appearance (helped by make-up that is supposed to make him look dark eyed and sinister but actually just makes him appear unwashed and grubby) is impressively creepy, and Weidt as Cesare is able to go from barely being able to open his eyes to having a sudden emotional outburst when confronted with Jane with great effect.
Of course, it’s easy to read a lot into Caligari if you choose – the idea of hypnosis and sleepwalking are great allegories for the upcoming Nazi era of Germany after all, but to suggest a connection is to credit writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer with the same sort of supernatural predictive powers as Cesare himself. The film is better served by being taken on its own merits. Director Robert Wiene has crafted a fantastic nightmare movie, using his fantastic sets to great effect, combining the Expressionist visuals with great lighting and a sense of drama to create a genuinely weird and creepy chiller that still works almost a century later. Isn’t that enough?