How The Cabinet of Dr Caligari changed cinema

The horror movie was born in 1920 with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and it's resurrected this month as the film screens with a new live score at Hidden Door in Edinburgh. Ahead of the screening, we look back at the legacy of Robert Wiene’s film

Article by Jamie Dunn | 04 May 2018

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari does not want for critical praise. If anyone compiling a study of the silent era doesn’t include a sizable mention of Robert Wiene’s 1920 film, we can safely assume they haven’t seen it. Although how any self-respecting film scholar could have avoided this wild horror masterpiece is anyone’s guess, given its ubiquity on the Film 101 syllabus.

Released almost a century ago, Caligari introduced the world to a new kind of horror film. There had been ghost story doodles and films about devils and ghouls made in cinema’s infancy, along with a small-scale version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but nothing like this. Horror films need only be creepy to fulfill their obligations to their audience, and Caligari is certainly that, but it’s Wiene’s ability to wholly immerse us in the film’s nightmarish world that makes it so effective. “Caligari creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy,” wrote Roger Ebert. “In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”

The macabre tale conceived by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer concerns Dr Caligari, a carnival showman who has a strange, sad, spindly young man named Cesare, a somnambulist and clairvoyant, under his control. The doctor's slideshow involves waking Cesare from his slumber and challenging the audience to ask him anything about their future. When one poor sap enquires after the date of his own death, he’s told by Cesare he’ll be worm food by dawn’s early light. It’s enough to put you off the fair’s candyfloss and popcorn.

Murder ensues, but Caligari’s macabre plot is beside the point. What’s made the film endure for 98 years is its cock-eyed style. The art design was a three-man job: Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig created the jaw-dropping look, in which the sets are as twisted and violent as the film’s antagonist. We’re guessing set-squares and spirit levels were not part of their toolkit.

The strange town in which the meat of Caligari takes place appears to have been designed by MC Escher by way of Picasso. Houses lean at impossible angles and every wall threatens to topple over and crush you at any minute. Streets are crooked zig-zags on a road to nowhere while the town’s peoples’ shadows dart off at inconsistent angles. Every frame screams violence, dread and madness; nothing feels safe or real. Made before conventional movie etiquette was established and horror’s genre tropes were set in stone, it feels like anything could happen. And it does: Caligari is one of the first examples of a movie that flips in your mind thanks to a twist ending.

First screened in Berlin on 27 Feb 1920, Caligari’s nightmarish design had an immediate impact on his peers and German Expressionist cinema was born. Directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang ran with Wiene’s apocalyptic vision, creating their own masterworks like Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927) which would prove to be similarly iconic.

The movement didn’t last beyond the decade, but its influence raged on. Lang, along with other German filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger fleeing Europe and the Third Reich, took Caligari’s expressive style of grids of shadow and applied it the hardboiled detective films they made in Hollywood, creating film noir, a style that flourished in the 40s and 50s with subsequent resurrections in the American cinema of the 70s and early 90s.

Contemporary cinema is similarly indebted. Tim Burton’s expressive worlds of macabre in films like Beetlejuice, The Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow owe a great deal to Caligari, while Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands is a dead ringer for Cesare, Calagari’s tragic tool of death. The film’s distorted world and nightmarish imagery also clearly spoke to David Lynch. Wiene was one of the first filmmakers to successfully immerse their audience in the distorted mindscapes of their protagonists, and Lynch would become the modern master of using design and expressive imagery to intensify his characters’ emotions. No Caligari, no Eraserhead, Twin Peaks or Inland Empire. For that alone we all owe it a debt.

You’ve a chance to see The Cabinet of Dr Caligari on the big screen later this month as The Skinny team up with Hidden Door to present a very special screening of the film complete with a brand new electronic score. The Reverse Engineer, Midi Paul, Matthew Collings, WOLF and Heir of the Cursed will be performing live along to the film. The night will also feature a performance from Sarah J Stanley's electronica project HQFU, and will culminate in a rousing live set from electronic producer Makeness. “The idea of responding to the look, feel and themes of this early cinematic masterpiece, and creating a non-stop sonic landscape that takes the atmosphere of the film and amplifies it into an overpowering immersive experience is going to be absolutely epic!” says David Martin, Creative Director of Hidden Door. It's been a ubiquitous tale of death for nearly a century, but the Cabinet is set to be jolted back to life this month...

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari screens with a live soundtrack on Thu 31 May, Leith Theatre, 8.30pm; tickets £10-12