The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Robert Wiene | 1hr 15min | Spoiler Warning

For what becomes such a violently expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari opens rather softly with the introduction of Francis, our narrator, sitting in a garden. We observe as a woman dressed in white glides by like an ethereal spectre, mysteriously vacant in her expression. He tells us that this is Jane, his lover, and from there he unravels the tragic tale which bound them together. 

Suddenly, we find ourselves flashing back to a warped, sinister village sitting upon a sloping hill, its buildings and streets made up of dark, twisted shapes and shadows splashed all across its scenery. Still in the early days of cinema, Wiene takes inspiration from George Méliès himself in his breath-taking matte paintings, while simultaneously lifting the artistic use of such backdrops to a whole new level in their gothic imagery. One may convince themselves that this use of painted backgrounds brings a certain flatness to these shots, and yet they would quickly find themselves lost for words when they witness characters move from the foreground to the background of the cluttered mise-en-scène, revealing the true depth of such images. At the town fair where spinning carousels jut out at strange angles and oddballs congregate to share their eccentric acts, Wiene creates the look of a demented, Edvard Munch-like painting brought horrifically to life.

Maddening production design, always looking as if it is on the brink of collapse.
Painted shadows and warped proportions, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a nightmare manifested.

It is also at this carnival where Francis first encounters the mysterious travelling showman Dr Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist – that is, a sleepwalking man who is under his master’s control. Inspired by the story of an 18th-century mystic who used a somnambulist to commit murders, the asylum director turned madman absorbs himself in his newfound power, and begins using Cesare to carry out his own homicides. 

Tim Burton would pick up on this terrifying character design and keep running with it many decades later.

Or at least, so it would seem, as in one final twist we discover that Francis’ first-person recount is not as reliable as we initially suspected, with him being an asylum inmate who has incorporated his fellow patients into his tale. His imagined lover, Jane, is a deluded patient, and Cesare, the murderous somnambulist, is a quiet, gentle man. As it turns out, Dr Caligari is indeed an asylum director, and yet even he is far from the evil villain Francis perceives him to be. On this final note of ambiguity, Wiene leaves us to ponder what sort of terrors Francis has experienced that have given birth to such distorted refractions of reality. 

In his structure of flashbacks within flashbacks, Wiene filters reality through the eyes of madness, letting the narrative grow a little more unhinged with each progressive jump until, at its deepest point, we reach Dr Caligari’s immersion into a European legend. The film is deeply concerned with the tales we tell ourselves to make sense of our environment, but on a broader scope it is looking into the grand narratives that cultures pass down to make sense of their own national identities. In repurposing the tradition of sharing legends, Wiene didactically frightens viewers away from the evil actions carried out by those wielding immense psychological power, rather than inspiring them with tales of heroism and bravery.

Werner Krauss is frighteningly unhinged as the madman Dr. Caligari, delivering one of the great performances of the silent era.

As a Jewish filmmaker who struggled with the oppression of a government looking to gag its boundary-pushing artists, and who would flee Nazi Germany little over a decade later, Wiene’s cinematic rebellion is evident, and yet there is also a reflection of his own nightmarish disorientation here. From the clerk who sits in an unusually high, Dr Seuss-like chair, to the heavy, dark makeup dabbed around Cesare’s tired eyes, everything about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari appears a few dream layers removed from reality. There are sick, twisted minds somewhere polluting the goodness of Francis’ world, but in Wiene’s delirious evocation of such invasive, omnipresent evil, he forces upon us the most unsettling horror of all: the uncertainty of where this evil truly comes from, and the disturbing consideration that it may come from within.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

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