Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920) – A hypnotist and a somnambulist come under suspicion for murder, following their bizarre town fair act.
This post is part of Preamble to Halloween, an October marathon of horror features before the dawn of All Hallows’ Eve.
Shrill screams and the crimson of blood have become so intrinsically tied to horror cinema, it is hard to imagine a film of the genre without either. But so it is with Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, a 1920 German silent film that relied almost entirely on what is seen in black and white.
The strange tale is related by Francis (Friedrich Fehér) in his extensive flashback. To a stranger, he tells of his visit to the town fair with his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). There, they witness the sideshow of hypnotist Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), who wakes his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) from a deep sleep.
Cesare opens his haunting eyes. Staring ahead, he tells the futures of curious onlookers, including Alan’s death that very night. It happens, just as foretold. A grieving Francis sets his heart on investigating his friend’s murder – and the curious two-men act who predicted it.
Roger Ebert once called this the “first true horror film”. While there have been many horror works before this, never has the genre been treated with such artistic intent. Director Robert Wiene did not shoot his picture, as much as he painted it. Every stroke of his cinematic brush feels deliberate, creating a work of art out of each shot.
His world is one made up of sharp edges, slanted walls and impractical staircases. German Expressionism reigns the screen with the brilliantly made sets, inviting audiences into a brand new reality that is distorted in visually striking ways. This uncanny imagery breathes life to Wiene’s unique and hypnotic vision, seemingly birthed right out of his very own bad dream.
Lighting plays a massive part, casting tall shadows around heavily made up actors. Not only did their dark eyes, emphatic expressions and exaggerated movements add to the film’s unnatural ambience. They paved the way for the look of iconic monsters that followed in the years ahead, from Nosferatu to Frankenstein.
It did not matter that the story is simple by modern standards. Both the backdrop and cast at the forefront are carefully designed for scares. These elements are vital too, given the limitations of cinema back in the 20s. Words are kept to a minimal on the intertitles. Jump scares are out of the question with the absence of sound, while greyscale takes visceral gore and violence off the table.
Sans frills and effects, the film instead uses its sharp understanding of our psychology. It introduces us to an uncomfortably unfamiliar universe that seemingly could only appear in one’s fantastic imagination. An unreliable narrator and a twist ending add to the disquiet, leaving us unable to trust what we see. This was a masterclass of pioneering techniques that effectively play on what truly unsettles us.
It is hard to believe that this film was made a whole hundred years ago. Time has not diluted its impact but rather amplified its reach. Beyond the 20s and 30s, which saw a peak in German Expressionism cinema, other creatives continue to follow the film’s lead. Even musicians like Rob Zombie.
Be it in Caesar’s reflection in Edward Scissorhands or the characteristic sets of Suspiria, the influence remains visibly strong in modern cinema. Credit is owed to the film of many firsts Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari and its invaluable century-old lessons on the powerful language of visual storytelling in horror.
Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari is now screening at ArtScience Museum Singapore’s ArtScience on Scream.