The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Year: 1920
Production Co: Decla-Bioscop AG
Director: Robert Wiene
Writer: Carl Mayer/Hans Janowitz

If you're a wannabe cinephile and want to know why this film is so important, it's because it might be the first movie where set design became more than just the backgrounds. Others (like Roger Ebert) will tell you it was the first true horror film or even the first movie to overtly comment on politics.

Melding with the artistic styles of Dali and Picasso, the sets (rather than just background plates, they allowed the actors to interact with them as easily as traditional sets) are a nightmarescape of angry, jagged lines, dangerous-looking sharp edges and crazy angles. To sound smarter than you are in movie circles just use the term 'German expressionism'.

In the hands of director Robert Wiene and those listed as his production designers (Walter Reimann, Walter R̦hrig and Hermann Warm), it makes the sleepy village of Holstenwall a visual metaphor for the story and characters Рdangerous and possibly insane.

It's all told in an extended flashback as an old man, Francis, tells a visitor about the episode that drove him out of his hometown. Years before, he and his friend Alan visit the village fair where an evil looking man, Dr Caligari, has obtained a permit for his travelling show to appear.

It consists of waking up a man, Cesare, who sleeps in a wooden cabinet not unlike a coffin. Caligari tells the crowd that despite being asleep Cesare has the power of prophecy and will answer any questions about the future accurately. When Alan asks Cesare when he'll die and the answer is the following dawn, the two friends are shaken but try to laugh it off.

But when Alan turns up dead the next morning, Francis realises something is very wrong. Recruiting the town police into the effort, they apprehend a would-be murderer who denies having anything to do with the previous killing, and Francis becomes convinced Caligari is behind it, somehow controlling Cesare to murder people in his sleep.

As Francis and the cops are trying to get to the bottom of things, Cesare breaks into the house where Jane lives – the young woman Francis and Alan both have a thing for – and carries her off. After the mob hunts Cesare down the investigation leads to an insane asylum where Francis is horrified to learn Caligari is the director, and just when he cracks the mystery and reveals Caligari's true identity and intentions, the movie pulls its infamous twist.

Apparently part of the creative intent of the film was to comment on the politics in Germany at the time – of cruel and unmovable authority on the part of the state (Caligari) sending the sleeping man (the German people) off to do its killing for it, as it had done just a few years before in the First World War. A lot of commentators think it even foresaw the rise of National Socialism and Hitler.

It's also said to have greatly influenced American films in the horror and noir genres in the between-wars years, and I imagine the twist ending inspired whole genres of the films the world would eventually come to equate with Hitchcock, where things aren't as they seem.

But if you want to take the story and design at face value they make for a plenty entertaining mystery thriller. Even though the technology of the time didn't give directors the means to portray such scenes (from streets to entire towns) only gave directors methods like shooting plates of artworks on canvas, it's still far more visually imaginative than many movies you see today. You can see how the set design and use has its roots in the theatre, and if anything it represents a bit of the lost art of set design being part of the storytelling language.

A classic, and for good reason.

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