The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the birth of horror cinema, straight up. This 1920 movie didn’t just lay down the rules, it invented most of them—right down to the now-familiar convention of having the guy with the most negligible survival skills volunteer to die first. While Hollywood was working on its own brand of realism, German cinema in its infancy plunged straight into the fantastic, weird and scary.
The picture opens in what looks like a pleasant city park with Francis, the narrator, recounting a story involving his friend Alan and fiancée Jane in their hometown of Holstenwall. A traveling carnival has just come to Holstenwall, its most curious attraction a zombie-like somnambulist, a sleepwalker, held in thrall to the bespectacled Dr. Caligari. Practically bursting with excitement, Alan coaxes Francis into visiting the fair with him, and before long the two find themselves sitting with other curious townsfolk in the tent where Cesare, the somnambulist, is set to awaken after a putative sleep of 25 years.
Meanwhile, the first of an unusual series of murders has taken place, the first victim a civil servant who brusquely dismissed Caligari (“FAKIR!!”) as he tried to buy a concessionaire’s license the day before. That night, Alan is the next to go, his death foretold by the somnambulist: “Time is short. You will die at dawn.” We see the murder in shadow, Alan’s arms and those of his assailant a distorted tangle of thrashing limbs on the bedroom wall.
What’s so weird and scary about this when 10,000 other scary movies in the past 80 years have shown us much weirder and much scarier? To be honest, it helps if you can imagine yourself in the position of seeing it for the first time in Germany in February, 1920.
The Great War has ended, inflation is rampant and prospects for the future seem in every way limited. The previous six years have witnessed the hellish results of the entire industrial infrastructure of Europe concentrated for maximum killing power on a few hundred miles of mud stretching from the Alps to the English channel. Millions are dead. Germany has been humiliated by the peace process. And along comes a movie—not just one, actually, but a series of extremely popular German horror films—that only seems to contribute to the scarcity of answers and the general feeling of angst.
Displacement is one of the recurring themes in German Expressionist horror, a genre best exemplified by just four movies made between 1919 and 1924: Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem and Waxworks, all produced by the same national studio, Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft. Where Impressionism sought to convey an outward impression of an object, Expressionism was an attempt to turn the emotional feel an object invokes back on the object itself. In broader terms, Caligari was the first attempt to superimpose a psychological or emotional state on subject matter in a film—with visually astonishing results.
Like the Germans themselves, forced to get to grips with such huge losses, Expressionism also seemed to reconcile itself to a losing role in the search for cosmic answers. There is no exalted place for humans in the Expressionist film, only anomie and unease. In Expressionist cinema, this unease manifests itself in pestilence and supernatural terror (Nosferatu), the entry of evil into the world (The Golem), and a profound distrust of the unknown (The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari). If it strikes you as odd that a people as afflicted as the Germans in 1920 would seek escape in such disturbing movies, consider the kind of Cold War-era science fiction that American studios produced in the ’50s and ’60s. Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still both showed and disguised the things Americans were really afraid of. Early German horror films did much the same, countenancing social problems and in some cases representing them allegorically, but also introducing a supernatural element that attributed “how it ever came to this” to something beyond mere human agency.
For all the unease encrypted into movies like Caligari, however, the German studio system in 1920 was the healthiest it had ever been. Consolidated from smaller studios, distributors and exhibitors to produce domestic films that would fill the void left by the ban on Allied imports, the film conglomerate UFA remained the best-equipped studio system in the world when it was sold off to private corporations after the war.
Mainly for these reasons, the makers of Caligari made the fateful decision to shoot the film completely indoors, where they would be able to exert complete aesthetic control over the proceedings. The real star of Caligari is the astonishing set design—a triumph of artifice and fiendishly inspired mise-en-scene. The walls, floors and ceilings of its buildings and houses bear no structural relationship to each other whatsoever. Human skin is masked and frozen under thick coats of stage makeup. Doors and windows are distorted at unnerving angles. Even the shadows are painted on—not merely an avoidance of nature and the outdoors, but a complete denial of the sun’s existence.
The only escape hatch from this disturbing dreamscape is the implication that it’s all just a paranoid delusion. Studio chief Erich Pommer insisted on adding a Rahmenhandlung, a framing story, which he thought would both emphasize the fantastic scenery in the main body of the film and couch its anti-authoritarian message in the rantings of a madman. Writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer protested vigorously, but the framing story stayed. As an anti-authoritarian fable, then, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was compromised in the making. As the most original example in a genre that continues to influence the look of Hollywood films, it’s as striking a vision as you’re likely to find.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available wherever spooky videos are rented. It’s also part of a four-disc DVD set of German horror available from Kino on Video, 1-800-562-3330.