“Spirits surround us on every side… They have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child,” says the man in the garden.
German Expressionist cinema was launched 95 years ago with the release of Robert Wiene’s most famous film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Considered the quintessential work of German Expressionism (a visual style in which both characters and the world they inhabit are disjointed) and the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would go on to influence a large number of films with its story devices and unique, stylized production design and cinematography. It was a film I’d yearned to see for many years (I’ve always been intrigued by German Expressionism). I finally got my chance last Halloween (yes, last October 31st!) to see it on the big screen at Film Forum in New York City in a brand new 4K digital restoration. It was an extraordinary experience; it certainly lives up to the hype it’s earned for nearly a century.
1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari centers on a man in the town of Holstenwall who recounts a story about an insane, mysterious hypnotist named Dr. Caligari who uses a somnambulist named Cesare to commit murders while in town for the fair, and the efforts made to stop Caligari. Wiene gathered an impressive cast that included Werner Krauss (as Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (as Cesare), Friedrich Feher (as Francis), Lil Dagover (as Jane), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (as Alan), and Rudolf Lettinger (as Dr. Olsen). Wiene’s strong direction draws incredible performances, including Krauss, who is wonderfully sinister as Caligari and gives the film’s best performance. Veidt is ghoulish and eerie as the mesmerizing, corpse-like Cesare. Wiene makes effective use of the opening and closing iris on characters to transition between scenes, and uses long takes throughout. The screenplay by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz questions authoritative power and sanity, and explores manipulation and deception. It also introduces ideas like a framing story, questioning the reliability of the narrator and, more famously, the twist ending (which I will not reveal here).
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is certainly an artistic triumph. The incredible production design by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Rohrig reflects a disjointed human psyche, creating a distorted world filled with bizarre, jagged landscapes, tilted places, and sharp angles. Willy Hameister’s cinematography matches the tone of the film and enhances the feel created by the production design (the restored color tinting looks gorgeous and the use of shadows creates several frightening moments). The film’s editing moves the film at a great pace, and the makeup design (particularly with Caligari and Cesare) enhance the abnormality of the characters. Reimann’s costume designs enhance the madness of the characters. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an influential film that has earned its status as a German silent classic. Its production design and cinematography would have an impact on later Hollywood genre films in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s (ranging from monster movies to film noir), and story devices that were introduced in this film are still used to this day. It remains as entertaining today as it was nearly a century ago.