This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
On day six, we return to the horror film that started it all.
Often regarded as the first horror film in the history of cinema, albeit not the first to dabble in the macabre, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari must stand among the most influential films of the so-called ‘silent’ era. Every bit as significant as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a horror for entirely ulterior reasoning – and undiminished by the passing of time, the film is bolstered by the ingenuity of its startling design and wealth of the sociopolitical meaning and critique lurking beneath its seemingly straightforward story.
Directed by Robert Wiene, working from a Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer script, the film is predominantly told through the flashback of its disturbed protagonist Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his trance absorbed fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover). ‘What she and I have lived through,’ Francis tells an old man as the film opens, ‘is stranger still than what you have lived through’. Jumping back to happier times, we find Francis and friend Alan, who also happens to be head over heels for Jane, excitably venturing to visit the local fair: a spectacular spectacle, featuring a performance from Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his infamous somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). It is not long after Caligari’s appearance in the town, which resembles the unholy offspring of Grosz, Kandinsky and Bruegel, that mysterious crimes begin to occur.
When Alan is told by the prophetic Cesare that he has until ‘the break of dawn’ to live, it falls to Francis ‘to get to the bottom of these dreadful deeds’. Across six brief acts, the film concerns itself with themes of paranoia, mentality and trauma, not to mention a bleak mistrust of authority. Caligari was born of the German pacifists scarred by the Great War, still fresh in memory, and haunted by the already fractioning political extremism in the early days of the Weimar Republic. It is not so hard to link a plot concerned with mind-wielding power and a sleep walk into submissive violence with the then recent past and the future which lay ahead, not two decades later.
It was the art director Hermann Warm, with aid from painter-stage designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who conceived that a naturalistic aesthetic would be an ill fit for Caligari, instead proposing the creation of a visually arresting world, aligned to art’s expressionist epoch. Captured entirely on stage sets, the film exists within a nightmarish hell of sharp lines, violently oblique curves, jagged edges and unexplained symbols. If expressionists sought to capture intrinsic feeling and sensation, that which is conveyed here is the mind of depravity. Canvas backdrops and painted shadows, combined with stark lighting effects, create a surreal sense of unsettling two-dimensionality, an aura that feels entirely appropriate for the film Siegfried Kracauer once claimed predicted the rise of Nazism.
The visceral artistic disturbia of the film’s environment is present too in its acting foreground. Krauss, who would later gain notoriety as a Nazi sympathiser, wears the garments of a Victorian crook, whilst Veidt is every bit the figure of horror, with his jet back bowl-cut and enchanced facial expression. Cesare’s physical superiority is heightened by intelligent visual trickery, not least in a number of splendid shadow-based choreographies. Wiene’s iconographic creativity would not only inspire fellow expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, but also generations of filmmakers to come.
To borrow the terminology of Wagner, Caligari is a gesamtkunstwerk of visual distress – even the film’s advanced graphics resemble a shattering of the idealistic thinking behind Bruno Taut’s Glasshaus architectural imaginings from just years earlier. Viewed almost a century after it was made, Wiene’s film retains its power to disturb and gains, ironically, further atmosphere from the evident wearing its reel has endured. It bursts with verve and, of course, ends with that twist.