Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) opens his cabinet to introduce Jane (Lil Dagover) to his servile somnambulist (Conrad Veidt).
Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1919)
aka The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Directed by Robert Weine
71 min.; Germany; Black and White (tinted); Silent
"The frightful is always in our midst." Produced in Germany in late 1919, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is regularly cited as the great example of film's entry into Expressionism. For a cinephile a simple definition of this art movement is provided in the historical fiction flick, Max (2002): "I know what the war looked like," art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack) says, explaining what's marketable in modern art to frustrated artist Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). "But, what did it feel like?" The art design of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, designed and painted by Walter Reimann, Walter Rohrig, and Hermann Warm, challenges us to experience what the mind of an insane man feels like. Emotions are transformed into forms; lines are skewed, perspective distorted, doorways are trapezoidal, streets converge to a point, and shadows are painted on the floors and walls. The narrative too takes place in the troubled mind of a student named Francis (Friedrich Feher) who relates the tale of the criminally insane Dr. Caligari and his mysterious somnambulist servant, Cesare (looking somewhat like a proto-Edward Scissorhands) who join the annual fair in Holstenwall just as a series of murders occur there. Whle the authorities remain powerless to stop the killings and arrest the wrong man, Francis accuses Caligari and tracks him to a state asylum, where the doctor is the director. There Francis uncovers a strange text that reveals Caligari's irrational motivation for the deadly crimes. However, there's an unexpected twist: that story is wrapped by another that suggests Francis himself is actually a madman cared for by Dr. Caligari. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari then is the story of an insane man told by an insane man; the stylized art design is intended to imply the reality of this insane mind to a (hopefully) sane audience. This twist at the end reminds me of the latter third of Fight Club (1999) wherein the narrator (Edward Norton) confronts Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) only to discover he's a figment of his own addled mind.
Cesare attempts escape with his latest victim through a twisted mental wilderness.