History of Horror: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari

Dir. Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920

Eureka’s 2014 Blu-ray makes the bold claim that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is ‘the first true horror film’. While not really true, it’s probably fair to say that this is the earliest horror film whose influence has endured beyond the silent era. It’s visually striking – right from the queasy green-tinted title cards with their odd, abstract designs a discordant note is struck which follows through both in the much-praised expressionist set design, but also in the spiky, disjointed story.

A film in six acts, it opens with the striking image of two men talking in a garden while an ethereal maiden, dressed in white, floats dreamily towards them. This is the framing narrative, and we learn that one of the two men is Franzis, who proceeds to relate the weird story of Dr Caligari and his somnambulist slave Cesare and the reign of terror they perpetrate in the town of Holstenwall.

Caligari is both comical and sinister – lurking at the front and side of frame, gurning madly, his spectacled eyes always looking askance here and there. He’s surely a visual inspiration for the Penguin much as Conrad Veidt (Cesare) would later be for the Joker. Act 1 establishes the situation, and ends with Caligari unveiling a poster of Cesare as part of his travelling show. Act 2 introduces the horror: mysterious crimes are taking place in Holstenwall. A clerk who insulted Caligari has been found murdered.

Caligari’s show consists of waking Cesare from his deep sleep – the coffined man’s heavy eyes slowly click open, and his reproachful stare meets the viewer’s eyes. Cesare can apparently predict the future, and tells Franzis’s friend Alan that he will not live to see the next daybreak. Later that night, Alan is killed in his bed – we see the murder as shadows cast on the bedroom wall.

From here, the picture has the hallmarks of an early horror-thriller: the mad assassin stalking the streets; the hero’s desperate search for the truth; the heroine menaced by the killer. Cesare is acting on Caligari’s instructions, and is dispatched to kill Franzis’s friend Jane. Instead, he abducts her, in a scene that presages Frankenstein’s monster’s attack on Elizabeth, or Count Orlok’s approach on Ellen. Cesare is pursued through the jagged streets of Holstenwall, and expires. Jane is saved.

The increasingly crazed Franzis discovers that Caligari is, in fact, the insane director of a lunatic asylum. Then, in a twist that prefigures any number of subsequent horror movies, we return to the present day where it’s revealed that in fact Franzis is the madman; Jane and Cesare are other caged lunatics, and Caligari is in fact the director – but perfectly sane. Ending with the nightmare of the hero confined in a straitjacket.

Caligari is visually striking; its narrative, moving in jumps through the six acts, is compelling, and the haunting, otherwordly Cesare a clear precursor to the psycho killers – zombies, ghouls, vampires or slashers – in pretty much every horror film since. The elements of thriller – the hero investigating the apparent villain to uncover a sinister backstory (the original Caligari and Cesare menaced Northern Italy in the 1780s, giving this the horrific edge of a repeated nightmare) – are the bones of perhaps most horror movies. The story’s focus on artifice and substitution – Caligari and Cesare are copying the crimes of the originals; a criminal arrested for attacking an old woman is revealed as a copycat; a dummy of Cesare is kept in the coffin while the original is out committing crimes, and ultimately everyone is revealed to be a madman’s fiction – definitely has the disconcerting disconnection of a giallo. And the final reveal – the story has been spun from a skewed view of reality – echoes through to films like Ghost Stories (2017).

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