Being released in 1920, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an extremely controversial and unsettling piece of work when first unleashed among German audiences. Like the many German Expressionist films that followed it, Caligari focuses on several themes that weren’t openly discussed at the time, and to some degree, still aren’t: murder, loneliness, hopelessness, and rape, just to name a few. The film has several honorable credentials up its sleeve, including for being the first of the horror genre, and is even often cited as a major inspiration for film noir, which debuted only a few years later (while the “first” film noir is debated, some consider M to hold the title, directed by fellow German director Fritz Lang). This scene, where Dr. Caligari’s puppet Cesare attempts to claim another victim, is potentially the most hair-raising of the film’s (rather short) duration. This is particularly due to Giuseppe Becce’s haunting composition, which not only holds up against many compositions to this day - it outmatches them.
The above scene is a perfect example of the disturbing world that Wiene has created. Wiene gives the impression that sunlight doesn’t exist here, as if the characters live in an alienated world constantly blanketed in total darkness. It’s clear that these sets probably weren’t particularly expensive, as they rather cheap and plastic looking, but on this rare occasion Wiene has benefited from it, because it fits the world he has created perfectly. Jagged, crooked walls and buildings are a normal sight here, and it’s as if Francis has appropriately entered a large funhouse at a carnival and is somehow unaware of it. The lighting is such that it is often difficult to glimpse these set pieces in great detail anyway, as if they are only dimly visible by candlelight, and only makes them all the more haunting.
In fact, the settings and locations look entirely inhabitable. How can any sane person possibly choose to live in such a world? Why aren’t any of the characters reacting appropriately to this? These unnerving sets, often barely touched with an awkwardly dim light (if there is any light at all), this is all simply the world that these people live in – they know of no other place or happiness. That alone is a discomforting thought, let alone there is a psychotic murder on the loose. In retrospect to the film’s ending, it is an unsettling, yet excellent representation of the mind of a disturbed individual.
In the duration of the clip's 7 minutes alone, the film reaches three different shades of color, depending on the location of each scene. The scene with Cesare abducting Jane is consumed in a dark, greenish blue hue, emphasizing the darkness. When Jane is rescued and is back of the hands of Francis, we are back to the traditional black and white that we are used to. However, when Francis visits the local prison, where the suspected killer is being held, we enter yet another color, this time a shade of orange. With the wide shot of the prisoner being chained in his cell, it is evident that Wiene favors expressing emotions and themes using extreme close-ups and angles, because it’s as if Wiene built the cell specifically for the shot. When we are first introduced to Cesare we are zoomed right in his face, as if only inches away. This shot is extended into an uncomfortable amount of time, just to make us squirm in our seats. This is all evidence of how Wiene is a master of being in total control of the audience’s emotions, and never letting go. Even the dialogue and title cards are a huge leap from traditional filmmaking, and are only one of several aspects of the film to tighten Wiene’s grip.
The plot itself isn't by any means groundbreaking. A sociopath of a doctor hypnotizes a patient to carry out dirty deeds for him, and Francis, our protagonist, must sabotage his plans Scooby-Doo-style. But Wiene handles it in a very brilliant matter, borrowing heavily from the likes of D.W. Griffith in terms of editing, specifically in his use of cross-cutting. We are taken back and forth between two events taking place at the same time to increase tension and suspense, and making the climax all the more powerful (in this case, the chase scene between Cesare and the townspeople, and Francis looking in on Dr. Caligari’s home). But it is done so flawlessly and effortlessly in a way that it is difficult to be confused by the ongoing action.
Characteristically, Jane isn’t so different from most other early lead female roles (sadly). She is attractive, innocent, and the motivation for the film’s protagonist, but serves no other real contribution to Caligari. That is, until after her meeting with Cesare, who seems to have corrupted her. She becomes mentally isolated and distant from Francis and everyone else, and there doesn’t seem to be any hope for her return. Her innocence has been taken from her. Cesare - who looks strikingly similar to Edward Scissorhands - doesn’t seem human at all. He walks and moves entirely emotionless and robotic, almost like a wind-up toy. It is even difficult to catch him blinking. Of course, his black jumpsuit and unearthly, pale face is unsettling enough alone, but the way Cesare stealthily and effortlessly glides the wall as he approaches Jane’s room, and creepily gazes through her window is enough to give anyone goose bumps. The fact that he doesn’t ever speak on word of dialogue makes him all the more awkwardly strange. It is difficult to decide which villain is more disturbing, Cesare, or Dr. Caligari himself. Slouching with the his cane in his black suit and top hat, it is clear that Dr. Caligari, and possibly the film itself is heavily inspired by the titular character of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (but mostly Mr. Hyde).
While some might feel cheated, or even unmoved by Caligari's “twist” ending, it should be noted that this is the first time this has ever been done in a feature film. It goes without saying that the ending has seeded inspiration for several decades of films to come. Sadly, the "twist" ending gets a bad rep because some writers choose to exploit the tactic, and sloppily turn to this ending for it's shock value, rather than strategically.
If Caligari is indeed the first horror film, it holds the title honorably. Even upon first viewing, it is easy to understand the inspiration and importance of the film as a staple in not just, Expressionism, but in cinematic history altogether. The combination of its eerie sets and lighting, Becce’s haunting score, and performances all-around are indeed scarring, and should be viewed and studied, on several occasions, by both amateur and hardcore fans alike.
The film is embarrassingly easily accessible to anyone, being both of Netflix Watch Instantly, and even in it's entirety on YouTube (although the latter isn't recommended for lack in quality). Just be sure to watch the 1919 version, not the loosely-inspired remakes.