Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Director: Robert Wiene
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is just shy of a hundred years old, but it remains totally unique. Which isn’t to say that it hasn’t had an abiding influence on cinema – it’s final twist has been imitated by films as different as The Wizard of Oz and The Usual Suspects, and it’s bizarre yet touching henchman is said to have inspired Johnny Depp’s performance in Edward Scissorhands. But there’s nothing else remotely like it, and there never will be.
It was one of the first films to present a coherent style and aesthetic, in the belief that style says something. Director Robert Wiene turned Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’ story about the sinister Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), who sets in motion a series of murders carried out by his somnambulist henchmen, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), into a showcase of Expressionist visuals, in particular the remarkable set designs by Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig, with their painted-on shadows and their warped perspectives curving in at the top like an old Betamax tape.
Over the years it’s been subject to all kinds of interpretations – Caligari, with his power to send people sleepwalking to their doom, has been seen as a proto-Hitler – but looking at it now, rejuvenated on this sparkling print, it’s the sexual subtexts which leap to the fore. At the centre of the story is a love triangle. Best friends Franzis (Friedrich Feher) and (the not very Germanic sounding) Alan both hanker for Jane (Lili Dagova), or say they do. Actually, Franzis seems quite content to stand aside and let Alan have at it, but he’s truly heartbroken when Alan dies, stabbed one night by Cesare. Maybe Alan was Franzis’ true love all along? That might explain why he seems so uncomfortable, and almost faints, when he visits Jane’s parlour (a modern audience will be quick to spot the way the hang of the curtains, and the round light-fitting dangling between them, precisely recall a certain part of the female anatomy).
As for Cesare, look past the heavy makeup and the stricken expression, and he’s almost beautiful, a youngster too (we learn he’s 23), with the shaggy hair, narrow waist and trim physique of an X-Factor contestant. When he’s not laying down in the cabinet-cum-coffin, he stands bolt upright, and he’s about the only thing that does in the entire film. So perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that the life-size painting of Cesare that Caligari uses as a display piece to attract the crowds bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant phallus with a face. In which case, maybe all those backdrops of drooping lamp-posts and drunkenly tilting walls aren’t there just to look pretty – maybe they’re telling us something about the state of this little town’s libido?
Expressionism as a metaphor for sexual dysfunction and repression? Cesare a walking hard-on – or more politely, the rising Id? A broken window standing in for a broken hymen? Put into words, it sounds crass and programmatic; put into moving images, these things have a way of cutting deep. The moment when Cesare bears Jane away across twisting rooftops is justly iconic, but it gains much of its impact from the scene immediately preceding it, when he snatches her from her bed. Here, for once in the film, you’re very aware of something real happening, of bodies struggling against each other.
But what does all that have to do with Dr Caligari? The common denominator, surely, is living a lie. Eventually, we discover that Caligari is leading a double life, but perhaps he’s not the only one. Maybe sexual guilt of one kind or another demands it of us all?
That said, theories will only get you so far with a movie like Caligari. One of the most fascinating moments in the film comes late on. Jane is sitting enthroned in the courtyard of a lunatic asylum like the Virgin Mary in heaven. Cesare’s there too, looking extremely dashing as he plays with a spray of flowers. What does it mean? Hard to say, but it’s gorgeous and troubling, and it’s power to resist final interpretation is part of its appeal.
This print retains a little damage but is generally very clean, with crisp detail and pretty colour tinting. Some of the scenes have such immediacy, they look like they could have been filmed yesterday. It’s a lovely way to experience a movie that has never been surpassed as evocation of nightmare and neurosis.
Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari is being released theatrically in selected cinemas around the UK and Eire from 29th August.