Box Of Nightmares: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari (1920) – Blu-ray review
Next film you watch, check the frame for a shadowy figure or a wonky angle. Chances are, Caligari has already got to the director.
The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari
(Robert Wiene, 1920)
It is relatively easy to give people nightmares from watching a film: just make something go ‘BOO’ or ‘bump in the night,’ and you’ll get a reaction. Yet seldom can a filmmaker create the sensation of actually being in a nightmare through the experience of watching the film itself. That is what The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari achieves; while not far off being 100 years old, the film retains its reputation because it genuinely looks like the madmen have been put in charge of the studio.
It’s all about the set design, of course. Inspired by expressionist movements, director Robert Wiene and his team fused theatre, photography and art direction into a sustained assault on logic and reality, through the simple yet devastating effective mechanism of distorting the clean lines of everyday life. Everything in The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari is jagged and angular; streets and rooms collapse in on themselves, while walls are daubed with weird, abstract designs. One of the joys of the new Blu-ray restoration is to admire the artistry and texture that has gone into the work – and yet, no real effort has been made to disguise the homemade, hand-painted quality of everything. That’s true of a lot of early cinema, but here it means something more because it chimes so well with the material.
Because, really, it isn’t all about the set design at all. The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari is a remarkable feat of narrative engineering as well. These days, its shocks might feel commonplace, even trite, while Wiene – particularly in the scene-setting first act – hasn’t figured out a visual language to avoid the overuse of explanatory intertitles. No matter. Once it gets going, Caligari never lets up. Consider that, within years, Fritz Lang would be producing four or five-hour epics and marvel at the ground covered here in just 77 minutes.
Sure, depth and nuance are sacrificed compared to Lang’s work, but Wiene is making a serial adventure, not a novel. The decision to frame the story in six acts was presumably taken for logistical reasons, given that each equates to a reel change. Yet it gives the film the dynamism and propulsion of a serial. Each act must be crazier than the next, building to a cliffhanger – it’s enough towards the beginning that a murder takes place off-screen between acts, yet the second act is staged with a silhouetted killing (Hitchcock, for one, is taking notes). By Act IV, Wiene shows the murderer in the act itself… but there are still shocks to be had.
It’s tempting, given how much of interwar German cinema can be read as an allegory of the rise of Nazism, to treat The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari as an allegory – yet, of course, nobody had heard of Hitler at the time. Nonetheless, this is a deeply fearful film, yanking out certainty and replacing it with doubt and dread, something that must have had real resonance to a nation who had just lost a war.
Yet its impact is even greater on cinema itself: the form of the thriller is being established here, with strategically placed flashbacks and a twist ending that somehow still manages to retain a frisson of ambiguity. Its influence runs from the obvious (Tim Burton’s fondness for Gothic architecture; the asylum setting of Shutter Island) to the less so (did the makers of The Wizard Of Oz see this and realise the value of casting actors in multiple roles?). More immediately, it made Germany the go-to place for fantastical cinema, a baton gleefully wielded by Murnau and Lang… both of whom would eventually move to Hollywood, as did creepy sonambulist killer Conrad Veigt, who went on to play the Nazi in Casablanca. And from there, the nightmares just kept spreading.