Mitchell Brown examines the highly inspirational silent horror film that paved the way for German expressionism.
German expressionism is one of the oldest visual styles in film. Even if you aren't familiar with the name, the look is distinct and immediately recognizable. Its aesthetic has seeped into the very fabric of our media, as seen in Dark City (1998) and My Chemical Romance's album art for The Black Parade. The film that made the style famous is the 1920 German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. The film has been studied and analyzed for over a century and still gets screened as part of the college film studies curriculum. Its visual style is revolutionary and the story is straightforward, and it manages to maintain the warm blanket feeling of a definitive horror classic.
In the town of Holstenwall (a place that has never discovered the concept of a 90-degree angle), a young man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) finds himself competing with his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for the affection of a beautiful girl named Jane (Lil Dagover). They stumble into a nightmare when they attend the town fair and enter the tent of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). The good doctor boasts of having a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who can see the future. Cesare tells Alan that, much like the tagline of Evil Dead II (1987), he’ll be dead by dawn. When Cesare’s prediction proves accurate, followed by several other murders occurring in town, Francis decides to investigate and determine who’s responsible for his friend’s death.
The iconic visuals keep people returning to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Everything in the town feels off-kilter and strange with its jagged edges and warped shapes. When paired with harsh shadows and the monochromatic color of the restored film, it makes the world feel like a gothic storybook. This town is not cemented in realism and the film embraces that.
The actors’ performances are over the top in proper silent film fashion, and it works well with the world’s aesthetic. If they behaved more naturalistically, it would be at odds with the rest of the film. Their erratic body language and behavior fit perfectly with Wiene's direction. That coupled with everyone's black eye and lip makeup layered over jarringly white skin, helps build these characters into the complex icons they are. It would be distracting if the world weren’t so wacky, but it works for the reality at hand.
What helps hold the film up is that while it can be seen as an arthouse movie because of its stylistic choices, it has a straightforward story that helps it remain grounded. There’s little ambiguity throughout (until you get to the ending), and the characters’ motivations are all direct and easy to understand. The story isn’t terribly deep when you get down to it, it’s just a black-gloved killer narrative with a monster element. However, that simplicity makes this strange world feel even more believable.
Despite the blemishes that naturally exist in the silent film era, like slow pacing or overly exaggerated acting, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari holds up surprisingly well. Wiene's artistic vision and influence on modern cinema reflect as early as Nosferatu (1922), making similar use of the monster’s shadow as a haunting presence, to the recent filmography of Tim Burton, who frequently homages German expressionism in his films. Likewise, I'd say that if Dr. Caligari’s appearance didn’t inform the look of The Penguin in Batman Returns (1992), it would be very surprising. In all, it is a spectacularly ground-breaking film that paved the way for today's distinct understanding of horror.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is now streaming on Tubi.