The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: The World’s First Horror Movie

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is almost a hundred years old, yet still casts a long shadow over all the genres it invented.

At its heart, is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari an anti-authoritarian call for rebellion, an object lesson in conformity, or an allegory about how we are all mere pawns lost in a culture gone completely mad? That’s up to you to decide. What’s interesting is that nearly a century after it was first released, the film’s backstory remains such a swirl of misinformation, conflicting memories, urban legends, shaky recordkeeping, and contradictory ego trips. It’s impossible to pin down any solid truth.

How the script originated, how the production went, who decided to tack on the framing story at the last minute, what the framing story means, who decided to go with the Expressionist design, and what sort of critical and box office reception the film received in 1920, are still the subject of fierce debate today. In a way, and aptly so, Caligari’s history is as much an insane jangle of crooked angles and unbalanced teetering images as the film itself. What we can say for sure is that it was the first German Expressionist movie ever made (if accidentally), the first straight horror film ever made (ditto), and remains one of the most influential pictures ever released, leaving an indelible mark across a surprising spectrum of genres. Given the events of the past few months, Caligari is also more relevant now than ever.

Co-writer Carl Mayer claimed the idea of a mad despot and a hypnotized subject, who slavishly and unconsciously carries out his murderously delusional orders, arose from Mayer’s military experiences during World War Co-writer Hans Janowitz claims the idea of a string of murders centered around a carnival came from something he witnessed at a Berlin fair in 1913.

Both men, neither of whom had written a screenplay before, also agree that the initial inspiration came after seeing a sideshow hypnotist at a carnival they visited together in 1918. Others have pointed out the story bore more than a passing resemblance to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The System of  Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” while others have noted the clear influence of the then-popular Grand Guignol scene in Paris.

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Until you get to the twist(s) that close the film (giving credence to the Grand Guignol), the story is a fairly straightforward murder mystery.

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Two young friends, Francis and Alan (Friedrich Feher and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), while jockeying for the affections of Jane (Lil Dagover), visit a local traveling carnival. There they take in the act of the mysterious, top-hatted and wild-haired Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). As they watch, Caligari awakens his somnambulist subject, Cesare (the great Conrad Veidt), who under hypnosis answers questions from the audience. When Alan jokingly asks when he will die, Cesare responds “Before dawn.” And wouldn’t you know it? He was right!

After Alan and a couple other people are found stabbed to death, Francis decides to do a little detective work of his own, which brings him back to Caligari. In case you’re some kind of plebe who hasn’t seen it yet (what’s wrong with you?), I’ll stop there.

All this is wrapped in a framing device (later borrowed for Forrest Gump) in which Francis tells his story after the fact to a stranger on a park bench. The less said about that the better too. None of it really matters all that much, anyway, given the film isn’t remembered for its storyline. What matters are the visuals.

When producers Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer bought the script from the fledgling screenwriters, they weren’t thinking of making an Expressionist art house film. Despite later claims by writer Janowitz, there was nothing about the set design or look of the film in the original script. Meinert and Pommer simply saw it as an entertaining melodrama with a twist ending that could be made on the cheap. Germany was still rebuilding after the war, and so money and resources were tight. Given there was no budget for sets, electricity was being rationed, and the film would be shot entirely on a cramped soundstage, the only real option was to have the actors play out their roles in front of painted backdrops.

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Although Fritz Lang was originally slated to direct, he was too tied up with other projects. Instead the producers went with the fairly unremarkable Robert Wiene (a man who is generally given very little credit for anything in all the Caligari debates). Although nearly everyone involved took credit after the fact, it’s unknown who finally decided to go with the three set painters they hired, or who gave them the go-ahead to get a little nuts.

Ironically, the German Expressionist movement had played a major role in painting and theater long before Caligari came along. So long, in fact, that a number of art critics had already declared it a dead and clichéd style before the film even went into production. Still a very popular theater style in Weimar era Germany, the fact it had never been adapted for the cinema can likely be attributed to the perception film, still in its infancy, was a gutter art form aimed at the unwashed masses, who found simple banal realism far easier to understand.

Caligari was unlike anything movie audiences had seen in a commercial film before. Apart from the framing scenes and a couple isolated shots of Francis and Jane in a normal house, the body of the film deliberately plays like a madman’s fever dream. The painted townscape is filled with curved and pointed buildings teetering at dangerous angles, almost as if they were alive and shrieking. Roads twist and spiral to nowhere. The perspectives are deliberately mismatched and inconsistent, with the props and sets sometimes being too large for the characters, and others too small.

The trees and grass look like knife blades. Doors and windows are not square. Out of simple economic necessity given the lighting limitations, clearly artificial rays of light and distorted shadows were painted onto the backdrops. A carousel in the carnival sequence spins at an unlikely angle. Thanks to the tiny soundstage and in order to get a few shots, the cameraman was forced to tilt the camera, only multiplying the effect of the already unbalanced sets.

Even Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, both of whom had appeared in Expressionist plays, adopted exaggerated gestures and designed their own extreme makeup (heavy whiteface and blackened, deeply sunken eyes) to more fully fit into the operating aesthetic. Atop it all, and only deepening the sense of paranoid disjointedness, the film’s original score consisted of discordant passages from early 20th century avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg.

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Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on Amazon

The overall goal of the film was to draw audiences into the mind of a lunatic, though who the real lunatic is remains the subject of even more debate. As roundly denounced as the story-frame was, both by critics and those involved in the production, the producers argued it was necessary so as to not scare audiences away completely. In the end, I do think it works as a way of pointing up the schizoid reality of most of the film, though whether it ultimately undercuts the effect is again up to you.

Funny thing is, as influential as Caligari would become, the radical and transgressive style really was the simple result of economics, or lack thereof, much like having no budget would become such a defining stylistic element in the films of Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Ray Dennis Steckler, W. Lee Wilder, and countless other indie filmmakers.

While just how well Caligari did both at home and abroad is still being argued, its impact on German cinema was almost immediate. Although there were only a tiny handful of strictly Expressionist films that tried to push things as far as Caligari had, elements of the Expressionist style—the deep, elongated shadows, the distorted sets, off-kilter camera angles, and the later addition of dolly shots—were adopted for a number of significant films, most of which had larger budgets. Caligari’s influence was inescapable two years later in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Would-be Caligari director Fritz Lang would cop a move or two for not only 1927’s Metropolis, but 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse as well. Carl Dreyer’s 1932 weirdie Vampyr also owed as much if not more to Caligari than Murnau. And Germans aside, even from the few stills that remain, Tod Browning was clearly channeling Caligari in 1927’s lost masterpiece London After Midnight, from its storyline down to Lon Chaney’s makeup, which was unashamedly borrowing from Krauss. Browning would again offer a few nods to Caligari (via Murnau) in 1931’s Dracula, a movie whose style would then go on to inform much of what followed in the horror films coming out of not only Universal, but RKO, Columbia, and Warner Brothers as well.

Then something else happened that would only further solidify Caligari’s mark on American genre movies.

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It’s long been argued, and convincingly so, that Caligari was a reflection of the German people’s need to blindly follow a dictator, no matter how utterly insane he might be. In that, it’s said the film presaged the rise of Hitler.

When Hitler did start making his presence known in the early ‘30s, a number of filmmakers who’d been connected with the Expressionist movement, most notably Lang and Edgar G. Ulmer, decided life might be a bit easier in Hollywood, so they packed their bags and fled, bringing their distorted deep shadows, oblique camera angles, and monsters of the psyche along with them.

Even before Lang arrived, his M was already beginning to influence American proto-noir films like Stranger on the Third Floor, which had all of the requisite paranoia, shadows, and weird camera angles, as well as Caligari’s unreliable narrator twist ending (though thanks to the censors the twist had to remain unstated. Ulmer, meanwhile, would go on to make the most visually striking and psychologically harrowing of the Universal horror films, 1934’s The Black Cat. Other Expressionist Refugees began working with Val Lewton at RKO, and still others landed at Paramount.

After WWII, as ennui and paranoia settled over the country, it only makes sense that Caligari, an over-stylized crime film with an emphasis on a twisted mental state would become such a heavy touchstone for the emerging noir format. It’s also no shocker then that both Ulmer and Lang would end up making classic noir films like Detour and Clash by Night. Other directors would attempt to drag audiences deep into the distorted perceptions of an unbalanced mind, and Hitchcock himself would venture into Caligari territory with Spellbound and Stage Fright.

After getting his talons into horror and noir, Dr. Caligari’s sinister influence quickly spread to other genres. You could see it in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (down to the last minute framing device that comforted audiences but undercut the impact of the central story). It was there in The Residents’ fabled but unfinished epic, Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? It’s there in the exaggerated set designs of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, in a number of Werner Herzog films, and in Chuck Jones and Tex Avery’s zanier Looney Tunes outings.

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While there had been talk of a remake or sequel back in the 1930s, the closest anyone came were the cartoonish softcore antics of Stephen Sayadian’s 1989 Dr. Caligari (written by Jerry Stahl and starring the great Fox Harris), and a 2005 remake in which contemporary actors recreated the original film, playing out their scenes in front of green screens of the 1920s painted backdrops.

Was it really necessary? I don’t think so. Not anymore, anyway. Because you take a look around today, in Times Square, on TV, on the internet, or just walking to the post office, and it’s clear that almost a hundred years later, we’re all just living in Caligari’s Cabinet.