After Dr. Caligari brings his somnambulist, Cesare, to the town of Holstenwall, people begin to be mysteriously murdered in the night. Two of the village’s denizens are Francis and Alan, both of whom are in love with Jane and have an agreement that the best man will win her heart and marry her. Alan ends up dead, Cesare is suspected, and Francis investigates the history of Caligari, who as it turns out, actually is—
And that’s all I’m going to tell you. Robert Wiene’s movie is a precursor in several different areas: German Expressionism, frame stories, and (psychological) horror films. Like the masterwork of his stylistic successor, Fritz Lang, both stories of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari do not hold up to much scrutiny. But that’s not why they’re famous. Wiene’s film has lasted this long because of its aggressively theatrical set design, acting, and direction. The backgrounds loom over the characters in jagged shapes and severe right angles, as if they, too, are culpable for the horrific events that occur. Wiene includes plenty of close-ups of the actors’ faces, which are made deathly pale to contrast with their heavily blackened eyes. The performances are also larger-than-life, featuring about as much nuance as a lightning bolt, but fit in with the exaggerated aesthetic.
How much you’ll like this movie depends on your tolerance for style over substance. It feels more dated than its peers, as Wiene relies more on physical artifice than filmic techniques. While watching, you sometimes get the sense that the director could just as well have filmed a live performance instead. Nevertheless, Caligari has an extremely important place in movie history, given how many innovations it pioneered, including its twist ending, which I won’t delve into here. At 71 minutes, it’s easy to sit down and take in the movie, even if you’re not a silent film fan. As is the case with many other films I’ve been watching recently, if you’re interested in the evolution of cinema, Caligari is essential viewing.