“Spirits surround us on every side... they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.”
With a number of films I have commented on how they have been artistic; artistic in the sense of lighting, background, direction, etc. Well I truly mean a film is artistic in every way for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film uses the art style of the German Expressionists to create a surreal nightmare and to enhance the psychological nightmare. Expressionism began before World War I and was largely confined to Germany since they were isolated before and after the war. Expressionism was not only widely used as a style of painting but also as a style of film. Themes for these stories were often of madness, insanity, and betrayal. They were not typically romanticized either. These were themes common in their artworks as well. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films to use Expressionism to enhance the stories.
From the beginning of the film until the last few minutes or so the narrative is told in a flashback by a young man named Francis. They are in a wood where spirits are said to wander. The form of a woman walks past Francis and the old man he is sitting with. Francis tells the old man that the woman is a Jane someone he was once betrothed to and tells the story of what has happened to them.
A carnival comes to the German town where he lives with Jane and his friend Alan. He and Alan are in a friendly competition to see which one of them will marry Jane. They attend the carnival where a new act has opened. The act is called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In his cabinet is man named Cesar. Cesar is a somnambulist, a sleepwalker who Caligari claims has been in a deep sleeps for years and tell the future. The doctor says that through his many years of sleep Cesar can tell the future. Alan asks Cesar for his future, it is not good the somnambulist tells him that he will not live to see the dawn. The day before the county clerk was murdered and before long Alan becomes the second victim.
The townspeople suspect the murderer is Cesar. Feeling threatened Caligari sends Cesar to kill Jane. The sleepwalker creeps eerily into Jane’s room that night with a knife. When he sees her sleeping so beautifully he puts the knife down and goes to choke her instead. His plan backfires when Jane wakes up and begins to fight him off. Cesar being stronger picks Jane up and carries her out of the room into the night. Eventually Cesar grows exhausted, puts Jane down and falls over dead.
When Francis, keeping guard at Caligari’s hut at the carnival, realizes the doctor has tricked him. He and some men go into the hut and see that Caligari has put a dummy in the cabinet. Francis decides to go to the local asylum to see if the doctor is actually a patient there. He finds there is no patient by that name but if he wants he can talk to the head doctor. To his horror the doctor is actually Caligari! Francis has some of the staff search the doctor’s office. They find he has a book about a Caligari from 1093 who traveled with a somnambulist named Cesar and the sleepwalker kill people for him. When the modern Caligari learns that his Cesar has died he goes mad and is tied up.
Francis finishes his story to one of the greatest twists in a classic film.
To me the best aspect of the film is the Expressionistic sets. They are claustrophobic in their spacing and odd angles and the shadows were actually drawn onto the material used for the walls. The sets were fantastic at creating an unsteady, suspenseful, and horrifying atmosphere that makes you seems like you are in a carnival funhouse. Even the thick heavy makeup the actors wear added to the scariness.
With modern “horror” films, or what I like to call slasher porn, there are no scary backgrounds that help to create and set the tone. German Expressionist art was very psychological it reflected the artists’ lives during war and the effects of war. War is a horrible thing it is a nightmare. This art style was used to magnificent effect in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film’s story is so original for its time. One well known film that was made in the past few years used the same plot but I cannot tell you which one since it will spoil the ending if you have not seen this film yet. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an excellent silent film and is definitely one that all film lovers and film majors need to see.