Directed by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes place at a carnival in Germany where Francis, played by Friedrich Feher, and his friend Alan, played by Rudolf Lettinger, encounter the crazed Dr. Caligari, played by Werner Krauss. The men see Caligari’s showing of Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, a hypnotized man who the doctor claims can see into the future. Shockingly, Cesare then predicts Alan’s death, and by morning his chilling prophecy has come true, making Cesare the prime suspect. However, the question becomes if Cesare is guilty, or if the doctor is truly controlling him?
This film was a head of it’s time in several aspects and is considered the first true horror film. The visual style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is dark, twisted and bizarre. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives”. Strange designs and figures are painted on the walls of corridors and rooms, and trees outside have twisted branches that sometimes resemble tentacles.
German film professor Anton Kaes wrote, “The style of German Expressionism allowed the filmmakers to experiment with filmic technology and special effects and to explore the twisted realm of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and deranged fixations”. This visual style conveys a sense of anxiety and terror to the viewer, giving the impression of a nightmare or deranged sensibility. The majority of the film’s story and scenes are memories recalled by an insane narrator, and as a result the distorted visual style takes on the quality of his mental breakdown. This brings us to the end where we are introduced to history’s first ever twist ending. Without giving too much away, this ending paved the way for films of today such as Identity and A Beautiful Mind.
Tim Burton Before His Time
Tim Burton was influenced by Universal monster movies, such as Frankenstein, that he watched as a young adult and he didn’t know about Caligari until later in his life. However, there still can be something said about him being influenced indirectly by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and possibly directly when he finally saw the film later in his career. Whatever the case, There are some significant influences seen in his work. Edward Scissorhands seems to be a direct inspiration from Caligari’s Cesare.
Burton’s 1989 Batman has a unique production design for Gotham that seem to have a mix between something from Caligari and Metropolis. Burton’s own fantasy landscape tends to take over any film project he works on, but the exaggerated city design with jagged edges and slanted windows is too much to ignore.
The film has been considered extremely significant in history for its contributions to cinema as a whole. It is one of the most examined and widely discussed films. Film critic Danny Peary called the film “cinema’s first cult film, and a precursor for arthouse films.” It established the concept of using light and shadows to reflect character psychology. This concept would be the building blocks for film noir.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave meaning to the horror genre before it was even classified as such. Thus began the culture of horror fandom.