Silent Cinema Gems: ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’

51qA8O02dCLOn the 26th of February 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first German Expressionist film and one of the earliest horror movies in history, had its première in Berlin. The film was directed by Robert Wiene and based on a screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. “In film history, few films have cast a longer shadow (…) Even today, scholars view Caligari as one of the greatest films of the silent period and a landmark in the history of German cinema. Its famously distorted sets and fantastical, macabre imagery have influenced generations of filmmakers and challenged an equal number of scholars and critics to explain its significance from a variety of perspectives.” (Julie Hubbert, ‘Modernism at the Movies: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and a Film Score Revisited’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 1, Spring, 2005).

The makers used a frame story, a novel cinematic technique at the time, in which most of the plot is presented as a flashback told by the protagonist: Young Francis recalls the horrible experiences he lives through with his fiancée Jane and his friend Alan, an amicable love-rival, at the annual carnival fair in Holstenwall. Francis and Alan visit The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a coffin-like space where the mysterious doctor keeps the somnambulist Cesare under his hypnoytic control and awakens him briefly from his death-like sleep just to show him off to visitors. He claims Cesare has supernatural wisdom which enables him to foretell the future.When Alan asks about his fate, Cesare answers that he will die before dawn. As predicted, Alan is found dead next morning. Francis suspects Cesare of being the murderer, and starts spying on him and Dr. Caligari. The following night, Cesare intends to stab Jane in her bed, but softens when he sees the beautiful woman, and abducts her instead. Jane’s father is awakened by the noise and together with his servants, follow the fleeing Cesare, who, unable to outrun his pursuers, leaves Jane lying on the ground, flees and dies with exhaustion. Francis asks the police to search the caravan of Dr. Caligari, but the doctor slips way; Francis manages to follow him as he disappears into a madhouse. Francis is certain that here he will find the truth behind these mysterious events.  Caligari reveals himself to him as the director of the asylum, a fully-fledged lunatic himself, possessed by the mental projection of a mythical 11th century Italian  monk called Caligari, who also orchestrated the death of his victims killing them by proxy.

51xKdcitO4L._The twist in the end of the movie is revealed when the first frame is reopened and the whole story turns out to be Francis’ flashback. In reality, him, Jane and Cesare are inmates in a mental asylum and when he realises this, he has a breakdown and is isolated in a familiar-shaped cabinet. The good doctor he referred to as Caligari tries to cure him of his recently discovered obsession which he could decipher from the patient’s ‘flashback’.

Flashback scenes and present-time ‘real’ scenes have differing backgrounds: exaggerated, expressionist effects are obtained in the flashback scenes by using face paint on the actors to emphasize the deluded mind state of the storyteller; stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings are painted on canvas backdrops; the actors used an unrealistic technique of “jerky”, dance-like movements to perform their hallucination acts. Conversely, the lucid present moment is shown as normal, doors and walls are proportionate, and backgrounds calm and even, not littered with jagged lines and marks. Expressionism is used as style and the trendy recently-discovered psychoanalysis as the substance of this early 20th century film, “when read as an allegory of two competing models of self, the film appears to cohere as an aesthetic whole (albeit one comprised of conflicts and contradictions). In terms of its narrative, the displacement of a moral-philosophical model by a Freudian one is figured in the three friends who are broken apart by a mysterious travelling doctor and his somnambulistic minion. In terms of its formal design, a dialectic of flatness and depth functions to encode and enact a fear of the unconscious in the acting, scenic design, and camerawork.


Although scholars long have puzzled over seeming incongruities such as the “realistic” acting and the stylized set, or the asymmetrical aesthetic of realism and expressionism in the frame narrative, such problems are potentially resolved by reconsidering the rich theatrical legacy behind the film’s expressionistic style.” (Julia A.Walker, ‘In the Grip of an Obsession: Delsarte and the Quest for Self-Possession in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Theatre Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4, Film and Theatre, Dec., 2006). The longevity of the film is proven once again by the première of one of its digitally restored versions scheduled for the 64th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2014.