To speak of cinema without The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) would be to speak of filmmaking without Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb. Today’s dramas, horrors, noirs and thrillers have undoubtedly supplied from the infinite mastery of Robert Wiene’s staple showpiece. Approaching one hundred years since its inception, this work of art debunks its historic sell-by-date. Its recent digital restoration is a testament to its inability to age. Many regard Wiene’s feat as boasting the beginnings of the horror genre and the introduction of the twist ending. What is undeniable is that the classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari perfectly captures German Expressionism in its most tentative and visionary mode.
The world crafted by production designers Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm is a painted nightmare. Shadows daubed on white walls, asymmetric rooms, exaggerated edges disfigure scenes forcing characters’ interactions to constantly fear contact. Wiene plays on claustrophobia as if we are hinged down inside the mind of a madman. The thematic combination of superstition and mental espionage is suitably tormenting playing on one’s inability to differentiate between reality and reverie. Werner Krauss as the elusive, typically untrustworthy showman Caligari is the staple villain make up. Traipsing through the small German town of Holstenwall, Caligari exhibits the corpse of a figure called Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a sinister somnambulist who has apparently been asleep since birth.
It’s fortune telling and chaos as death that riddles Wiene’s fantastical landscape. At the time, Caligari was said to have unsettled its audiences. Critics applauded its ability to “squeeze and turn and adjust the eye”. It was also said to be a criterion for the slowly emerging intentions of Nazism. This is by and large a warped overstatement of a film that was impossible not to influence generations of artists, thinkers and, ultimately governing societies. Wiene’s film was an inspiring footnote to the ever-increasing ascendancy of twenties Dada and Surrealism. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang masterpieces Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are just three exemplary paragons that owe their methods and poise to the work of Caligari. The archetypes forged – the villain, the hero, the deranged prisoner – became the blueprint for future directors. Despite its monochrome production, it’s the film’s use of colour and shading that stars. Every shot is a likeness to mania. Every intention is achieved. Caligari remains Germany’s greatest gift to cinema.