The late Roger Edger called it the first psychological horror-thriller film in history which pre-dates Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho by nearly 40 years. The imagery of this film was not only influential to German Expressionism nor is only famous for inspiring the isolating distrusting shadows found in 1940’s and 50’s film noir. This film’s influence can also be seen in the works of modern filmmakers such as Guillermo Del Toro, Tim Burton, and Jennifer Kent. I introduce you to The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari. The story opens in an Asylum with our narrator Francis (Friedrich Feher) speaking to a stranger on a bench. A zombie of a woman walks past and we learn that this is Francis’ fiance Jane (Lil Dagover) who is now traumatized by the events that we come to learn about in flashback. In the story, we meet Cesare the somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) at the Fair and discover that the only one who can wake him is the mysterious hypnotist Dr.Caligari (Werner Krauss). By day Cesare is merely the exploited puppet of an exhibitionist and by night unflinchingly acts on the dark will of his master. After a series of murders and a kidnapping at the hands of Cesare, Caligari is revealed to be the mastermind behind it all. Francis later follows the mad doctor to an asylum and discovers that he is the director of the madhouse. Francis informs the staff and Caligari are put under investigation, found out, and imprisoned in his own madhouse. However, our story does not end here. It turns out that our narrator Francis was a patient in the madhouse all along and the characters in his story merely fellow patients and more shocking is that Caligari is merely the Francis’ Doctor.
Th film is a strong example of German Expressionism in cinema. German Expressionism describes a number of creative movements in Germany that began prior to WWI and peaked during the 1920s. The art movement is known for its emphasis not on capturing a proper imitation of reality but a distorted reflection of it. The goal of expressionism is to capture a subjective view of the world which this film does an excellent job of creating. The imagery of the film is iconic. The sets where clearly hand painted and presents a vivid surrealist picture. This world is made up of slanted and twisted alleyways, jacked crooked buildings, warped walls, and incongruent angles. Even the hand-painted shadows are in disharmony with there light sources. The violent and chaotic impression that the design of the sets imprint onto the audience serves as an external representation of the emotional and mental state of our narrator. The atmosphere the set casts almost invokes the feeling that at any moment this world could collapse in on itself which it does once the twist ending unfolds.
Modern audience’s knowledge of Asylums during the beginning of the 20th century can clearly identify the social statement presented in regards to mental health institutions at the time but this only scratches the surface. While Cesar is the instrument of death working for Dr.Caligari he is still one of the mad doctor’s victims. Caligari not only exploits his patient for his own profit but also coerces him into committing heinous acts of violence and cruelty. This caricature that Francis has created of his doctor leads us to question if he is a victim of abuse. What is clear is that the somnambulist in Francis’ story is a victim of oppression and the film showcases several examples of the tyrant slave dynamic.
The themes of oppression and abusive power dynamics serve as a way for the filmmakers to reflect the attitudes of German citizens post-WWI. The Treaty of Versailles not only ended WWI but place blame for the war on Germany. This would prove to be disastrous for the German economy and its politics. Many institutions and industries were abandoned, working class citizens were reduced to beggars, and hyperinflation furthered the ruin of Germany’s economy. The anxiety, distrust, and tension felt by the German people toward the German War Government and the Post War Government (Weimar Republic) is made tangible in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Caligari serves as a symbol of oppression as well as the disarray caused by the loss of one’s authority. When Dr. Caligari is revealed for what he truly is he becomes violent and descends further into madness and when Francis is revealed to be an unreliable narrator the audience begins to see how insane he truly is. The chaos that comes from authority lost is exemplified by Germany’s economic and political climate during the Weimar-period. The film ends on an ambiguous note and lets the audience decide if they believe Francis or not and asks the question “where does the insanity truly lye?” Is madness within the minds of the people or in the institutions that govern them? Considering today’s political climate questions such as these are still relevant.