The first time that I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I was roughly eight years old. That in and of itself is a rather bizarre story as too are the subsequent times that I viewed the German masterpiece – so here we’ll focus on the film itself as opposed to the ridiculous circumstances surrounding my experiences with it.
Of course, being released in 1920, the film has no spoken dialogue. Interspersed amongst the scenes are various cues and miniature speeches to explicate the mostly clear images that crop up throughout the film. Each inserted line is in someway manipulated to be presented to the viewer laid atop angular shapes of varying grey hues. Most jarring, though, are the sets and the art design in general that accompany the actors along this narrative of shadowy figures, flighty liars, cops and doctors. Utilizing current art movements of the time and spurred on by the necessity of explaining as much as possible sans actual speech, the director - Robert Wiene - and designers of the film saw fit to drastically stylize each setting and scene.
German Expressionism exaggerated reality and made even the most innocuous events, symbols or people appear grotesque – you didn’t want to look, but had to. The sets that accompany Caligari are stark, jagged, excessive and impressively enough, hand made. But because of these things, they also completely work within the film. It all seems organic regardless of the fact that nothing in the film actually is.
In an early scene, as the good doctor is seeking permits to display his somnambulist, he’s required to walk through the bureaucratic nightmare of a city hall. As he passes through doorways that don’t make sense and around corners that don’t seem to be quite right, Caligari comes to an office with a few men seated atop a pair of odd looking chairs. The legs, exaggerated as they are, require the men to verily climb atop in order to complete work at their individual desks. With the obscene concept of hoops and tribulations one must embark on daily, these two men are placed within the narrative to remind us that for them as well as us, daily life is filled with unnecessary hardships.
Even as the sets function as a self contained character, the actors are stylized to a certain extent as well. Of course, the over use of make up around Cesare’s eyes – he’s the somnambulist – only serve to accentuate the evil that is supposed to be exuded by this character’s presence. Looking at the film almost ninety years on after its completion, the appearance of Caligari and his devotee aren’t startling in the same way – but when taken in tandem with their surroundings, it’s to be sure that the duo represent something wholly awful.
After all of this, there actually is a plot to the film – a rather intriguing and well developed one, replete with a surprise ending – but without the surrounding trappings of the production, it just wouldn’t have come off as well.