Sit down and study any great period from the cinematic landscape and you will of course find that each one is defined by a set of symbolic visual motifs. Of them all, it is certainly arguable that the cinema of the German Expressionist era is the one that remains the most visually arresting. And though many people would likely be more inclined to cite either F. W. Murnau’s menacing masterpiece Nosferatu,or Fritz Lang’s dazzlingly daring Metropolis, as the defining film from that period of history, it is Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that remains the most haunting.
Now being re-released through the BFI with a crisp new 4K restoration, the true splendor of Wiene’s astonishing vision can once more be appreciated as the cinematic triumph that it is. Roger Ebert, forever the critic whom we all aspire to be, described Caligari as the “first true horror film”, and justly so. On the surface, this is a terrifying tale of a maniacal madman, who sets a killer only he can control upon a small and unsuspecting German town; with a third act reveal that continues to shock audiences and which introduced the world to the power of the twist ending.
Yet what continues to distinguish the film, and in turn causes it to be seen as such a significant example of German Expressionist cinema, is the way Wiene experiments with the medium and uses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to subtly make a stark and poignant observation on the state of German society.
Indeed, it is Wiene’s experimental approach that allowed Caligari to push the very nature of cinema in a new direction. Aesthetically, the director’s vision is grounded in theatrics. Typical of the era, the sets are characterized by the distorted structures and exaggerated angles we see in both the foreground and the background. Such artificiality is what imbues the film with its dreamlike state that unnervingly transforms, through the narrative, into a waking nightmare from which there is no escape.
Integral to this traumatic tone are a trio of hauntingly evocative performances. As the eponymous Caligari, Werner Krauss embodies a, now archetypical, menace that instils the whole film with a heightened sense of dread. His hypnotically sinister eyes chillingly juxtapose with his bizarre appearance, effortlessly holding the power to send many a shiver down your spine. In stark contrast, Friedrich Fehers’ played straight hero may almost seem inconsequential. Yet it is the combination of their performances that allow for the misdirection of the finale to hold such an impact.
The defining acting accomplishment though, remains Conrad Veidt’s superbly stylized performance as Cagliari’s somnambulist Cesare. His tense body structure and meticulously unnatural movements merge to create a seemingly unstoppable monster that actors continue to try and recreate today. Of course, they never wholly succeed because it’s the little nuances from Veidt that are so masterly. The mechanical facial movements of when he first awakens and the startling sight of his shadow before he comes in to the frame are what create and then consume your fear.
It is through all this that Wiene constructs a potent sense of nightmarish anxiety, which will continue to hang heavy over everyone, even after the film has finished. However, what makes it so distinct is how it manages to not only chill, but also affect you emotionally. What you are essentially witnessing is a society being pushed beyond what they can handle, in much the same way the people of Germany were at the time. It is this that haunts your mind long after you see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it is this that justifies its title as the original, and perhaps the best horror film that has ever been made.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will be playing at the BFI Southbank between now & the 11th of September. For full details, click here.