It is not often that a film takes the world by storm. Living in an era where revolutionary advances in technology are standard, it’s no wonder that audiences are no longer in awe of everyday cinema. Some films, however, have stood the test of time, remaining unmatched in their visual style and haunting aftermath. Known as the ‘granddaddy of all horror films’, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) lives on as a staple of horror, surpassing its successors as a visual masterpiece of German expressionism.
Paving the way for the future of horror, it was an experiment in cinematic communication. The silent film offers an uncanny exploration into the mind of a madman and a hero falsely incarcerated in an asylum. The plot is told as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of Francis, a young man who recalls the murderous events following the arrival of Dr Caligari and the somnambulist Cesare. Through its brilliant framing technique, the audience can never be sure who is actually mad, and its skewed depiction of reality makes its viewing a disturbing experience, which is only heightened by the jagged asymmetry of the mise-en-scene.
Written in Germany during the aftermath of the First World War, the film clearly embodies embittered sentiments towards the military and authority. This is reflected in its depiction of authority as brutal and manipulative, which is a confronting historical reality. The notion that the characters were puppets controlled by a sadistic madman resonated with German audiences at the time, who were suffering from spiralling inflation alongside the economic consequences of war reparations. Furthermore, the somnambulist character of Cesare is reflective of a soldier carrying out orders, as Dr Caligari manipulates him for his own ends. Echoing the behaviour of the German soldiers over the following decades, this could be interpreted as a premonition of World War II.
The film’s visual style is the pinnacle of the genre. Distorted backdrops, jagged lines, and painted shadows create a pervading sense of its surreal nature. Mangled structures twist to form nightmarish shapes, whilst its absurd geometry and harshly painted lines convey the sensation that this reality was drawn by the hand of a madman. The setting is a brilliant artistic combination that I find reminiscent of Edvard Munch and Picasso, however, it still remains definitively its own. Such a twisted and bizarre visual style has remained unmatched in the last century, reinforcing itself as a staple in film studies as an early cinematic pioneer.
The audience views the tale through the twisted vision of the narrator, where mundane structures of the everyday take on a menacing new shape. It is clear that this is not reality, as reflected by the stylised performances. The characters serve as symbols in a surreal landscape, their stark makeup helping to create a hallucinatory sensation. The harsh jaggedness of the physical setting is an aesthetic representation of tension and anxiety served to externalize moods that under ordinary circumstances would be construed as an inward circumstance or phenomena. Expressionism brought these internalized feelings and made them an integral part of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s mise en scene. In essence, the film’s design allows audiences to look inward through a sense of visual language that turned the world of the film inside out.
The sense of pervasive anxiety and the uncanny was taken from the minds of the German people and given a visual outlet in Caligari, the sense of which still haunts its viewing. The set design was a blending of real locations with a formal schematic that is exaggerated and disproportionate through obscure angles, sharp shafts of light, and irregular character movement amongst its equally irregular surroundings. This contrast between the real and the surreal is where the film gains such potency, and where modern audiences can see and truly experience the conflated feelings of the German people at the time of its production.
As the film has not been digitally restored, it does have a few visual flaws. Whilst some may find its spots and blemishes detracting, I personally feel that it added to the overall effect. The plot itself is the retelling of a story, so it felt as if I was watching an old recording of a story that was recounting one even older than itself.
Compared to modern cinema, it would be understandable that some might find the pace slow, with its long takes and few cuts between scenes. Nevertheless, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is incredibly imaginative and haunting, which is what sets it apart from many horror films today.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was unlike anything anyone had seen before. Not only did it establish the concept of lighting as symbolic of character psychology, but it pioneered horror as a cinematic genre. Whilst it may not have had advanced technological and graphic tools at its disposal, its artistry prevails, solidifying its place in history as a German expressionist masterpiece.