Widely considered as the very first Horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an exemplary example of another first – German Expressionism. Robert Wiene’s eerie tale of murder and madness accompanying the travelling showman, Dr. Caligari, and his Somnambulist, Cesare, skulks inventively and ominously from the shadows to the silver screen in a unique vision.
The star attraction of this piece is the elaborate visuals. The set design is a flamboyant visual puzzle, an experimental construction and design employed to reflect the corrupted inner minds of the characters and panic gripped town of Holstenwall. This nightmarish dreamscape of twisted roads and crooked buildings consistently absorbs and implants unease into the deepest pit of the gut. This is the stuff which nightmares are made of, a world recognisable in an abstract way, with the dimensions and logic as consistent as a child’s drawing. This very sense of dread originates here, as an experience, we can never be fully confident where we stand, each turn can easily lead to a dead end and a violent one. Wiene’s camerawork is simplistic, allowing the design of his world do the work. The fragmented and deranged realm of unnatural and dizzying angles decorated with scratches and hard, dark spikes speaks for itself. It is an exciting and inventive stylistic technique to tell a story, and an ingenious conversion of the pathetic fallacy enjoyed in novels.
The nightmare of expressionism clutches each character with dark claws. Eyes stare widely from blackened sockets, faces appear pale as corpses and the eponymous Dr. Caligari is nothing short of monstrous. The abhorrent creatures stalking the once peaceful town taps into the twisted corners of our own fears. Dr. Caligari resembles something of a professional in his top hat and coat, but his glasses magnify malicious eyes and expressive lighting casts horrendous shapes across his devious face. Werner Krauss’s Caligari is the original boogeyman and a terrifying beginning to a long line of horror villains.
The story is simple but effectively chilling and one of the first to use a shocking twist. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a bone-chilling piece of cinema which still holds an ability to haunt and slip surreptitiously into the subconscious with style.
Caligari teases groups of fare-goers into his unique exhibit. Upon command, Cesare the Somnambulist awakens from a twenty three year long sleep. Our hero’s friend asks his fortune – ‘how long shall I live?’ – to which Cesare coldly responds, with eyes as wide and bright as the moon, ‘Until dawn tomorrow’.