Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) turned 100 this year. 100!!
Expressionist films have been shaping the look of horror from the day they graced the silver screen. From the classic Universal monster movies to today’s modern terrors, the influence of these early German films is scattered over the history of horror.
Other expressionist films, like F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatru (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), have also made a giant mark on the industry. We can’t talk about German Expressionism without giving them a mention as well.
There are certain themes and styles that were used to create the feeling of terror within German Expressionist film. Disorientating angles and low-key lighting were combined with shadows to create creepy looking sets, which were usually painted in a stylised and abstract way.
Themes of split identities, insanity, and supernatural worlds were often explored, many times using symbolism. All these themes and styles are now synonymous with the horror genre.
Let’s take a look at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and how it, along with other expressionist films, have influenced our beloved genre over the past 10 decades.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Filmed in 1919, and premiered in Germany in February 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari features an unreliable narrator and ambiguous ending – something that we’ve grown accustomed to in the horror genre, but for its time, it was quite a novel idea.
The film opens on the young man, Franzis, as he sits on a bench in a courtyard alongside an older gentleman, recounting the horrors that happened to him and his ‘betrothed’, Jane.
He tells of a strange man, who calls himself Dr. Caligari, that came to the town fair with his sideshow; a somnambulist named Cesare. Soon after Caligari arrives, a series of murders take place, including that of Franzis’s friend, Alan – and the attempted murder of his fiancé.
Franzis is convinced that the crimes are being committed by Cesare, under the command of the strange doctor, and takes it upon himself to investigate.
*Warning: Spoilers Ahead. But, come on, it’s 100 years old.*
As his story continues, Franzis says that he discovered the Doctor works at the local insane asylum as the director. Searching through his journals, he finds that he was obsessed with an ancient mystic named Caligari, who would commit murders through the manipulation of a sleepwalker.
Franzis has proved his case, and Dr. Caligari is put in a straight jacket and into a cell.
But, when we return to the present time, with Franzis and the man on the bench, it turns out that he is actually in the asylum himself. The cast of characters from his story, including his fiancé and Cesare, are patients as well.
When the asylum director, who resembles Dr. Caligari, walks down to the courtyard, Franzis lashes out, claiming, again, that he is the evil doctor. Swiftly he is placed into a straight jacket and cell.
It seems that the tale that we have just heard was coming from the mind of a madman. But, just when we think we have it all sorted, the asylum director gives a sly look to the camera. Perhaps he is the villain after all…?
The themes sound pretty familiar, right? Some even consider The Cabinet of Caligari to be a ‘proto-slasher’.
Add to those narrative themes the visual comparisons, and the influence of German Expressionism to the history of horror is even more impressive.
So, let’s talk about some classic horror and modern films – and their directors – that have clearly been influenced by this 100 year-old piece of cinema.
The Universal Monster Movies
Universal Studios was founded by Carl Laemmle, a German-Jewish émigré. While he wasn’t a fan of horror himself, it was when he turned the studio over to his son who had a lifelong interest in the macabre, that the linkage between Universal and Horror was truly born.
Although perhaps not quite as stylised and artsy as films that would follow it, Tod Browning’s Dracula (the first horror talkie) still borrows many of the expressionist ideals to create an atmosphere of terror and fear. The stairs in Lugosi’s castle are quite similar to those in Caligari, for instance.
With a completely different look to the vampire Nosferatu, Bella Lugosi’s dark and mysteriously sexy creature in the 1931 film has become the most iconic and replicated one.
The cinematographer of Dracula was German-born Karl Freund, who had previously worked on expressionist classics like Metropolis and The Golem (1920), and would go on to direct Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932).
James Whale, when he took over directing 1931’s Frankenstein, used the German expressionistic style. In fact, he specifically asked that the film have the look of the German silent films.
Specifically, Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory is created with harsh lines and dark shadows. This is juxtaposed against the idyllic and ‘normal’ world outside.
The painted sets with sharp angles and disorientating, crooked windows are made to look even more horrific when compared to the soft lighting and natural beauty of the outside shots.
Not only are the lighting, shadows, and scenery more ‘natural’ in the normal world outside, but the camera angles are as well.
The juxtaposition that is used throughout Frankenstein is similar to the stark contrast of the opening scene of Caligari, to those that are the vision of our unreliable narrator. The majority of the sets were askew and abstract, but, when we’re in the present time, it’s a pretty setting of a simple courtyard bench.
Hitchcock took massive influence from German Expressionist films, and it can be seen throughout his extensive filmography. In fact, early in his career, he studied and made films in Germany. The first two feature length films he made as a director, The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1926), were shot in German studios.
The Lodger (1927), was Hitch’s first film after returning from Germany, so it is no surprise that it has many of elements German Expressionism within it. As Mrs Bunting, the landlady of the lodger, listens to him creeping down the stairs, the shadows cast on her walls are eerily similar to the ones in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Psycho (1960) is another prime example of how Hitch used shadows to create a dark atmosphere. When Norman and Marion are talking in his office parlour, the shadows that the birds cast around Norman enhance the tense mood as the subject of the conversation turns to his mother.
In the infamous shower scene, Hitchcock utilises the use of shadow to show the killer creeping up on his victim, much like the monsters in Caligari and Nosferatu. Of course, a silhouette had to be used to cover, what would be, Norman’s face. Strange and canted angles are also used to disorientate us and give us a sense of unease.
In Vertigo (1958), Hitch uses an unreliable narrator to confuse us and create twists and turns in the story. Much like Franzis in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Scotty’s (James Stewart) mind cannot be trusted. Since we are seeing the film from his point of view, we can’t be sure if what we are watching is real or not either.
(I hope I didn’t spoil anything for you there)
Visual German Expressionism elements are also brought to the film. Staircases, common set pieces of early German film, are displayed in a dizzying fashion in the bell tower, and shadows are once again used to portray the idea of split identities.
Knowing the look of German Expressionism films, it should be no surprise that Tim Burton is influenced by them as well. He almost looks like he stepped straight out of one, and his films are scattered with the style.
Burton grew up with the classic Universal Horror movies and his films often contain Gothic themes which mirror those of the classics.
Beetlejuice, with our protagonist couple caught in the space between the world of the living and the dead, uses stylised sets to depict other worlds, mimicking the ideals of Expressionism. The hallway of the land of the dead is very familiar with its painted set and slanted doors.
Burton also plays up the stark contrast of life and death, juxtaposing pastel colours with murkier palates. Unlike the idyllic set of the world of the living, the sets of the underworld are highly stylised, creating a confusing and unwelcoming environment.
This is also something he does with Edward Scissorhands – contrasting the suburban, ‘normal’ world, with that of Edward’s. Casting Vincent Price as the inventor is also an appreciated nod to the classics.
The colourful, pastel suburban world clashes with the almost colourless home of the Inventor and Edward.
Burton also utilises light and shadows, as well as angled architecture, to further emphasise the differences of the two.
For Sleepy Hollow, a classic Victorian Gothic tale is re-envisioned by Burton with a large emphasis on shadows, lighting effects, and props to create a creepy atmosphere in which the Horseman can terrorise the townsfolk. The abstract ‘Tree of the Dead’ serves as a gateway between the real world and that of the supernatural.
Other Modern Horrors
This 2010 release, directed by James Wan, is another film that toys with the idea of an alternative realm. When Josh (Patrick Wilson) has to save his son from ‘The Further’, Wan heavily relies on shadows, canted angels, and low lighting to create a frightening and disorienting feeling.
Although the sets themselves weren’t built askew like those built for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the camera and lighting creates a similar effect.
Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film uses stylised sets, symbolism, and obvious expressionist nods to create an atmosphere that helped make it a critically acclaimed hit.
The titular monster is eerily similar to the characters in Caligari and, as Amelia (Essie Davis), the struggling mother, sinks deeper into madness, he even emerges in various silent films.
Kent also plays with the contrasting colour palate to emphasise the state of Amelia’s mind. The interior of the house is covered in a drab grey, symbolising her depression. But, when she is alone and away from her son, she is in a much brighter, almost dream like atmosphere.
Even if black & white, silent films aren’t your thing, there is no denying the influence The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has had on horror over the past 100 years. Perhaps one of your favourite films was influenced by its German predecessors, and you didn’t even know it.
Take a chance on these silent classics and see for yourself how recognisable they are to the genre you love.
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