31 Days of Horror: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Biff Bam Pop’s 31 Days of Horror continues to stalk its prey (that’s you, gentle victims readers) from the shadows of the interwebs! Today, I’m going to take a look at a truly classic horror film from the early days of the art form itself: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Promotional poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Promotional poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The end of the First World War saw an explosion of artistic innovation in Germany. Harrowed by the war and defeat, artists began to revolt against not only the traditional strictures of German society, but against representational traditions as well. Expressionism was a movement and a style designed to oppose Impressionism’s ideal of portraying things as they appear to the eye with revelations of inner realities. Not things as they seem then, but things as they are (or at least as the artist views them). It was a perfect form for challenging the rigid traditions of German culture, and of criticizing the governments of both the Kaiser and the nascent Weimar Republic. There was something of shock art about Expressionism, showing people the world in an unaccustomed and often uncomfortable manner.

With Dr. Caligari, viewers were treated to one of the pinnacles of cinematic Expressionism. Unlike the later Nosferatu (1922), which was filmed mostly on location in Eastern Europe, Caligari was shot almost entirely in a studio, where Wiene, art director Hermann Warm, and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig set about creating one of the great masterpieces of Expressionist art. Caligari, the story of a mad hypnotist and his murderous mind control games, takes place in a small German town where the winding streets date back to medieval times. Dr. Caligari himself is a performer in a travelling fair, but the “normal” town upon which he preys is revealed to be more surreal than any fair. The ancient streets become jagged zig-zagging paths to uncertain destinations. The buildings cant at differing and unnatural angles. The rooftops over which Caligari’s sleepwalker leaps and runs are something from an architect’s fever-dream. Swooping, painted shadows and acutely sharp angles dominate the sets and scenery of the film, no window is square, no wall straight, and no sightlines clear. Even today, the set-work is simply breathtaking, and still manages to make the viewer uncomfortable in the film’s world askew.

A small town's streets, Expressionist style.
A small town’s streets, Expressionist style.

Although screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer had intended Caligari as an expose of the false sanity of power, Wiene undercut their theme by adding an ending that reveals the entire story to have been a tale told by an asylum inmate, thus safely containing madness within order, and the Expressionist challenge within a reassuring veil of normalcy. Still, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a remarkable spooky film, largely due to the Expressionist sensibilities it embodies, and, as with Nosferatu, to the modern viewer, the film’s silent nature makes it all the more creepy. Perhaps best of all, Caligari has passed into the public domain, meaning that you can sit in the comfort of your own home and watch it online in its entirety – for free! There is even a version online that features the original color tinting, a process completed by hand on each and every copy of the film made. So grab some popcorn, someone to hold on to, and enjoy. Oh, and don’t fall asleep. Who knows what crimes you might commit with your dreams?

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