Ranking: #96/111

Director: Robert Wiener (Germany)         

Genre: Psychological Horror Drama

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari deservesto be seen as a masterpiece of German silent cinema as well as one of the greatest works of expressionism in all the arts, including in painting and literature.

In the film, a madman tells the story of how he came to be in an asylum. It’s the story of a psychotic hypnotist, Dr Caligari, who commands a somnambulist, called Cesare, to commit murders. Cesare has slept for twenty-three years, mostly in a coffin, and is part of the hypnotist’s travelling sideshow at carnivals. In a rather convoluted plot, typical of an expressionist story like this, Caligari turns out to be the director of the asylum. The film is about how those in authority can abuse their power by manipulating individuals under their control to do terrible things, prefiguring the way in which the Nazi rulers “hypnotised” its masses, through propaganda and indoctrination, to carry out their cruel policies. It’s as if the scenario of the film is a psychological experiment performed by its writers to see if a person can do deeds in a “somnambulant”, hypnotised or indoctrinated state which he’d do in his waking state.

It’s typical of expressionism, whether in the intensely subjective paintings of Van Gogh and Munch or in Franz Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, in which the main protagonist wakes up one morning to find he has turned into an insect, to create an exaggerated sense of reality in which states of mind are projected into the external world, changing its form. In the film, this distinctive style can be seen in the distorted sets, where interiors, buildings and streets are slanted and misshapen. The viewer’s perception is “distorted”, like looking into a crazy mirror, with everything twisted out of its natural shape. The stylistic exaggeration is not confined to the sets, as the dress and make-up of the actors turn them into strange figures in a dark fantasy drama. These external distortions and exaggerations reflect the underlying theme of insanity. It’s a highly expressive, and, at times, grotesque, style suited to a psychological drama exploring psychosis.

A strange, ironic tone is maintained throughout, accompanied by a sinister undertone. For the audience, it often feels like they are inside a Munch painting or a Kafka story.

The film rates very highly for sheer ground-breaking originality and the artistry of blending form and content so magnificently.