Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
It’s March Break here at Nightmare on Film Street, which means we’re celebrating all things broken, from broken bones to broken minds. Horror has been a vehicle to examine mental breaks and insanity for centuries, even before the macabre made its way on film. But the film that many identify as the very first work of cinematic horror happens to be the ultimate depiction of mental instability on screen. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is not only a brilliant cinematic interpretation of a broken mind, its history is as tumultuous and unreliable as the minds of its characters. So let’s take a trip into the twisted visions and murky origins of the ultimate work of expressionist horror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has become the ultimate cinematic take on expressionism, influencing every film both within the movement and beyond. So it’s hard to believe it almost wasn’t the visually experimental work we know today.“
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is such a unique work of cinema that it’s easy to lose the film itself under its far-reaching legacy. The film is often called the first horror film, and while there are some macabre cinematic predecessors, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has them beat as a feature-length film with the sole intention to unnerve. Film was still a young art form in 1920, when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in German cinemas. The medium was full of seemingly endless possibilities to experiment with form, tone, and style. Yet none dared to present anything so shocking to a wide audience until The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Its origin story is far more complex, even accidental than its seemingly singular vision would suggest. Yet the conflicting accounts and tumultuous inspiration behind the film fits perfectly. It’s a story about warped perception, unreliable narration, and conflicting events. Why shouldn’t its creation be made of the same?
A Nightmare Born of War
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was conceived by writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer in late 1918. Like Germany at large, both men were deeply shaken by the trauma of World War 1. Janowitz was a military officer whose experiences in battle transformed him into a staunch pacifist after the war. Mayer avoided being forced to fight a war he didn’t believe in by feigning a mental breakdown. As a result, he was put in the care of a tyrannical psychiatrist who eventually inspired The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
In the wake of the first world war, Germany was in the depths of deep post-war trauma and financial instability, but it was also in the midst of a creative and artistic renaissance. During the period between Germany’s defeat in WW1 and the rising tide of Nazism in 1933, the Weimar Republic oversaw a period of thriving artistic movements and countercultures. Expressionism, an artistic movement that began in the years just before the war, reached its height of popularity during this post-war period. The movement was often difficult to define, but a rejection of reality in favor of emotion was the common thread.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has become the ultimate cinematic take on expressionism, influencing every film both within the movement and beyond. So it’s hard to believe it almost wasn’t the visually experimental work we know today. When Mayer and Janowitz began work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all they had was the seeds of a haunting story.
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Murders and Madness
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a story within a story, as our narrator, Francis (Fredrich Feher), recounts the “ordeal” that he and his “fiance” Jane (Lil Dagover) underwent to an old man sitting beside him on a bench. We are transported in a flashback to the village of Holstenwall. Frances and his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) visit a local fair where they witness a strange presentation by a man billed as Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). Caligari reveals a sleeping man (Conrad Veidt) in a cabinet that looks more like a coffin. He says the man is a somnambulist named Cesare and then commands the man to awaken and answer questions from the audience. Alan asks Cesare “How long will I live?” only to be told that his life will end at dawn.
Shaken, the friends return home and Alan is later found murdered in his bed. Francis suspects Caligari is behind his friend’s demise and the string of similar murders that have been occurring in his town. His investigation of Caligari reveals a mystery full of turns and surprises until one final twist changes the nature of everything we have just seen. Be wary, it’s impossible to discuss this film completely without revealing the ending, so if you haven’t yet seen it and wish to remain unspoiled, now’s your chance to stop reading and go watch it! It’s in the public domain but it’s worth paying to rent the Kino edition on Amazon. It’s a 4k restoration with the original German intertitles preserved. For a film as famous for its visuals as Caligari, it’s well worth paying a few dollars over watching a grainy print.
“[Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer] were inspired by their wartime trauma and intended to tell a metaphorical story about the dangers of blind obedience to authority.“
Okay, at this point we’re talking full spoilers. The end of the film reveals that Francis is the inmate of an insane asylum run by a doctor who our narrator identifies as Caligari. He imagines other inmates are the other characters we met in the plot, and it turns out the entire story was the paranoid imaginings of a madman. The twist is so iconic and effective that it’s surprising to know that Mayer and Janowitz never intended for the surprise conclusion to exist at all. In their vision, the story would end instead with the revelation that Caligari was the obsessed director of an insane asylum who has been manipulating a sleepwalking patient into committing murders for him so that he could “become Caligari,” a legendary Italian mystic with a similar modus operandi.
Mayer and Janowitz were inspired by their wartime trauma and intended to tell a metaphorical story about the dangers of blind obedience to authority. Caligari is a representation of malicious authority gone mad, while Cesare represents the blind obedience of the public, manipulated to murder in their sleep. But like the murky and unreliable narrative of the film itself, the true story of how the twist came to be is unclear. Director Fritz Lang claimed he suggested the twist to help audiences accept the bizarre central story, while other accounts claim it was the work of Caligari‘s director Robert Wiene. Still, others doubt the recollections of the writers, who didn’t begin to speak about the thematic significance of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari until years after its release, when a larger discussion of the anti-authoritarian reading of the film had already begun.
In fact, when the original script for Caligari was finally published in 1995, it revealed that the plot was always preceded by a frame story, counter to the claims of Mayer and Janowitz. Yet no evidence of a twist conclusion bookending the original framing device exists, answering little about who envisioned the twist and why, and if it did counter the writer’s intentions at the time. The ongoing mystery still manages to enhance the impact of the final film. The power of the twist remains untarnished by the complicated backstory, and in a film as disorienting and dreamlike as Caligari, the revelation that the primary story is a delusion doesn’t diminish the unnerving power of the narrative.
The plot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still stands out as uniquely odd and unnerving, but its visuals are what set it apart as one of the most enduringly influential horror films ever made. Yet before the script was assigned to director Robert Weine, there was no indication that the visual style would be anything other than realistic. Weine connected with production designer Hermann Warm over their desire to give the film a unique look. Warm brought in his friends, Walter Riemann and Walter Rohrig. Both artists were painters and theatrical set designers of the expressionist movement that was booming in Germany at the time. After reading the script, Riemann and Rohrig were inspired to apply their abstract style to the film to match the themes of sleep, madness, and perception in the story.
Visions of Art and Horror
From a modern perspective, it’s easy to assume that Caligari’s bold visual style would have been commercially risky. In fact, it was as much a financially driven decision as a creative one. Expressionism was a wildly popular movement in the artistic and popular culture of post-war Germany. And in Europe as well as the United States, the public was drawn to the unique art movements emerging in Germany.
Restrictions on the export of German art were loosening after the war, and everyone from the average American moviegoer to Hollywood studios was catching wind of the weird and wild stuff coming out of the country’s art scene. Caligari’s producer Rudolf Meinert figured that the more avant-garde the look of the film, the more buzz it would receive domestically and internationally. He was unsure if the story would land with critics and audiences, so he wanted to ensure the design would at least get people talking. Plus, using painted sets over location shoots would ultimately save on production costs.
Whatever the motivation for the film’s style, there is no doubt that the approach worked. Even in innocuous scenes like interactions on a village street, a visit to the office of the town clerk, or the entrance to a fair, Caligari’s angular, tilted, and twisted sets give the viewer a sense of deep unease. Beams of light and shadow are painted directly on the set, granting everything a harsh and uncanny separation from reality.
“Without the confluence of talent and ideas that created this film, we wouldn’t have the gothic castles of Universal horror, the mind-bending shadowlands of Val Lewton, the darkened alleys of film noir, or even the twist-heavy psychological horror of the present day.“
The dream logic of the film’s design extends to the costumes and makeup. Characters dress in clothing from different historical periods, giving the events the feel of a fairy tale taking place out of time. And the subdued makeup worn by most of the film’s characters pales in comparison to the iconic, angular dark circles and painted on wrinkles worn by Caligari and Cesare. All together it creates a sense of a waking nightmare, where nothing seems familiar even in supposed moments of safety. Yet the characters interact with their surroundings as if nothing is amiss, further intensifying the disorienting effect.
Once it’s revealed that the story is the delusion of a mad man, the bizarre visuals make sense. But even as the truth is revealed, the environment remains as surreal as ever. Are we still trapped in our narrators’ unhinged perceptive? Or is the hypnotic power of Dr. Caligari still at play? The film ends on an iris shot of the asylum director’s face, forcing the viewer to wonder if he might actually be the villainous Caligari after all. The mysterious conclusion retains its unique power to unnerve to this day.
Like the mysterious and contradictory story of the film itself, different accounts argue that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was both a critical and commercial success or a failure. We do know that the film created a stir among audiences and that at least a portion of critics in Europe and the U.S. praised it as a unique work of modernist cinema.
But the ultimate legacy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its influence on cinema to this day. Its dark and stylized look impacted the German film industry for the rest of the 1920s. When Nazism took hold of Germany in the 30s, many of the country’s filmmakers fled to Hollywood, where they applied their style to create the visual language of the American horror film. It’s a style that wouldn’t exist without The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Without the confluence of talent and ideas that created this film, we wouldn’t have the gothic castles of Universal horror, the mind-bending shadowlands of Val Lewton, the darkened alleys of film noir, or even the twist-heavy psychological horror of the present day. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the nightmare that started it all.
And in that light, its shadowy and strange history fits. Since when did a nightmare ever make perfect sense? If we could trace the origins of our darkest dreams, they would lose their power. But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is as effective and unshakable today as it was in 1920. It goes to show that horror would be nothing without a little mystery and madness.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!