The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari inhabits a very unique place in cinema’s long and eccentric history. It is an evolution of clashing ideologies. It presents itself as a dangerous jungle of sharp angles and distorted visuals. Its famous twist ending was born from unhappy studio heads and accidental misdirections. Its characters live and breathe outside of society and do not acknowledge their own existence. It is a murder and crime tale, but it also contains elements of suspense, psychological thrill, and horror.
In fact, it is probably the earliest example of a true horror movie. Horror, by definition of its codes, conventions and appeal, needs a very limited supply of artistry to thrive. Think about it, what is necessary to get the audience to scream, or feel fear? A killer. A victim. Scary music. Darkness. A few corners. It doesn’t matter how high the camera is, how convincing the acting is or how sharp the knife — chainsaw, axe, what have you — is. Sometimes all it takes is an echoing footstep to incite dread.
Dr. Caligari is a master of this simplicity. Its eponymous antagonist is the mad scientist’s ancestor. He is charismatic, enthusiastic and insane. Played by Werner Krauss, he steps into the movie already having sinister ambitions and sneaky underhanded ulterior motives. He spends the rest of the movie flirting with them.
He arrives in the sleepy German town of Holstenwall with a large crate. Inside the crate, he claims, is a sleeping man — he’s been asleep everyday for all 23 years of his life. Here, at the town’s fair, he promises to awaken this man named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who is also proclaimed to be a fortune teller; ask him any question and he will respond accurately. When Cesare awakes, his eyes are heavily ringed and his face is as pale as a ghost’s. In fact he could very well be a ghost.
All this is told in flashback from the point of view of a man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér), who we see at the beginning of the film sitting with a stranger in a park. A lady in white drifts across the screen in front of the two men, and Francis says she is his wife. Already we are feeling uncomfortable. She takes no notice of them. And then Francis mentions Dr. Caligari and Cesare, and the story travels back to when he and his friend Alan first encounter the mystical duo.
At the fair, Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) approaches Cesare and asks, “How long will I live?”, to which Cesare responds coldly, “Till the break of dawn!”. Alan is shocked. The next morning, he is dead. Who is to blame for this? Cesare, or the hands of fate?
A massive manhunt ensues, even though the cops have no idea who they’re looking for. Francis suspects Cesare and Caligari; one night he camps outside their little cabin and watches as the good doctor snores peacefully beside his lanky abomination. Surely they are innocent! Just as this thought enters his mind, another murder takes place. And then Cesare approaches the palatial bedroom of Jane (Lil Dagover) — Francis’ and Alan’s friend — and is unable to stab her in her sleep. Instead he carries her away like Dracula carries away his bride. Simultaneously, Francis tracks Caligari to an insane asylum, and wouldn’t you guess it, Caligari is the asylum’s director! Oh boy. The plot thickens.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari works as a movie because it sets up this plot with patience and a good eye for detail. It is an intriguing mystery that sustains itself for a good hour or so, before the famed twist takes effect. Indeed, we know that Cesare is the criminal, but we intuitively feel that there is something deeper. It’s the same feeling Francis has. Complete discomfort. The movie is directed by Robert Wiene, who has affinity for tinting different scenes to evoke certain moods (one scene switches colours in the middle of dialogue). He also enjoys opening and closing the iris of his lens, which gives the impression that we are merely onlookers in this story, not active participants. We’d like to jump in and warn Francis of his hunt’s futility, but the walls of the movie, the barrier of Wiene’s camera and the peril of Hermann Warm’s sets hold us off.
Holstenwall is not a safe place to be. It isn’t welcoming or warm. It’s a place that has danger lurking around every diagonal corner. Like I suggested earlier, the sets scream out at us the most. It’s not easy to ignore them. But scrutinise them closer. Take them in your hand and analyse their DNA. They lack right angles because the story lacks right angles. They are flat and superficial, like the characters that manoeuvre their zig-zag pathways. The shadows that slice the floors and walls are painted on; there is no ray of light that creates them. Perhaps Wiene and Warm don’t want anywhere for their characters to hide. There is no real darkness in this film, only the illusion of darkness.
I’ve seen Dr. Caligari three times now, the latest of which was on the Kino restoration DVD. The print was quite remarkable. The images were crisp and clear. The tints and fades happened smoothly. What I did notice, though, was a difference in the accompanying music. There was a more prominent electric sound, as if Jimmy Hendrix stoned himself out and plucked a few chords just for the heck of it. There was also more silence in the music, which is interesting because when there’s no music, there’s no sound at all. The mind creates sounds to fill the voids, and whatever the mind creates, the eyes surrender to.
But Dr. Caligari is one of the rare silent films that doesn’t need music to work. Take a Chaplin film, for instance. Chaplin is funny on his own. But without music, the mood is different. Imagine watching City Lights — one of Chaplin’s finest — without an accompanying score. The mixture of slapstick and pathos would seem disjointed and insulting. With Dr. Caligari, the elements of horror and suspense are there on the screen. Caligari looks like a concrete warlock. His smile is devilish. Cesare is thin enough to be broken by wind, but his face is hardy and his movements are slippery. He emerges from the shadows like a wraith. Even Francis, the good guy, never relaxes his facial muscles. He’s always on the alert. The stark angles and shrieking doors and windows create the kind of feeling you get when you walk into a morgue. Everything is cold. For horror of this kind to work, you need only look at what’s on the screen.
The silent era was before everyone’s time, certainly before the time of any of today’s film critics. To admire and adore these works, we have to travel back in time. We have to buy or rent a DVD, set aside some time and watch a movie like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. But we also have to relocate our mind and our senses. It’s a very different experience, viewing a silent film. We are so used to the glaring colours and intrusive sounds of today’s pictures that we tend to yearn for them when they’re not readily available. I keep wondering what it must’ve been like to see a silent movie not knowing what the innovation of cinematic sound would do for the medium — it has done a lot, let’s be honest. But to see a movie like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is to see a part of history that will never be history again. And that, my readers, is essential.