At one hundred years old, it has been widely argued that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first film to truly establish the horror genre. While this may not be entirely true, with examples of horror films dating all the way back to Georges Méliès before the turn of the century, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was certainly one of the most successful of the early horror films and remains one of the films from any genre with the most continued influence on filmmaking as a whole.
As with so many of the most iconic films of the Silent Era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a product of German Expressionism. In a move to solidify nationalism and prevent outside ideas from creeping in to German minds during the fighting of the First World War, the German government decided to ban the exhibition of foreign films, necessitating a massive increase in the rate of film production within the country. In response to the difficult times Germans faced during the war, they sought an outlet in film that provided a depiction of a cruel, harsh world, rather than the adventures, romance, and comedy that were more widespread in films from other countries. The result was a slew of talented filmmakers, often well-funded, who sought to experiment with the medium in ways that were unseen to the rest of the world, going on to become internationally appreciated pioneers of film.
Among the German Expressionist filmmakers was Fritz Lang, the visionary behind Metropolis, the basis for so much science fiction, and M, a precursor to the immensely popular film noir genre. Another was F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, another foundational horror film (which incidentally I wrote about for last year’s 31 Days of Fright). Finally, Robert Wiene, the prolific director best known for his horror works The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hands of Orlac, among others, led the German Expressionist movement. Though their films were all made possible due to German nationalism, it is in fact that very type of thinking that much of their work was intended to attack, and, partly as a result of this, Lang, Murnau, and Wiene were all forced to flee Germany when the Nazi Party came to power and many of their films were destroyed. Though Murnau and Lang found successful filmmaking careers abroad, Wiene died shortly after his exile in the midst of trying to make a sound version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and cement the status of his masterwork.
The film itself is a breezy 74 minutes that tells the story of the titular hypnotist, who commits murders by controlling a sleepwalking man called Cesare, and the discoveries a man called Francis makes about his plots. Though a century old, the film still manages to be quite unsettling with its story following these murders, and never lets the viewer know what might happen next through a number of reveals like the sleeping Cesare being a dummy, Dr. Caligari actually being the director of an insane asylum, the real Caligari having lived far earlier and only been emulated, and finally the entire story having taken place in the head of Francis, who is actually a patient at the asylum. Every twist comes with a desire to revisit the whole rest of the film with a new lens to view it through, and it comes so fast that it leaves a sense of confusion and a feeling that any of it could happen, something intentionally used to make viewers question authority as the filmmakers had done during WWI. These days Martin Scorsese‘s own take on this story with Shutter Island may be more popular, but it all started here.
Apart from the unsettling story, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari achieves its horrific atmosphere through a use of fantastical design work. In many ways it looks like a Dr. Seuss world put to film, though Tim Burton‘s filmography may be the better comparison given the subject matter, with twisting forms and strange angles and fixed shadows painted onto the sets. It clearly sets the film outside of our reality and makes some of the twists later on easier to believe- without the idea they could be happening down the street- but it also projects the idea that something is always a little bit off and the whole world has been corrupted, similar to Kubrick‘s creating of impossible spaces in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining to unsettle viewers. Though The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may seem somewhat simple by modern standards, it propelled the German Expressionist movement to the forefront of film discussion while making art films and horror films immensely popular, allowing Universal Studios to gain prominence through their own slate of monster movies that often directly borrowed from it, and it has been a major source of inspiration for hundreds of filmmakers during the last century. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a film that challenged the system it was made in and continues to inspire us to question our world today.