The film begins as a tale. Two men talk in what looks like a park, and a vision of a woman walking past them in an apparently distracted state inspires one of them, Francis, to tell his interlocutor of the strange events that befell himself and the woman, his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover). Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) were indulging in a friendly rivalry for the hand of Jane. When they visited a carnival in a mountain village and particularly a stand promoted by the bizarre-looking Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who can apparently tell the future, told Alan he would die in a matter of hours, a prediction that later came true when Alan was murdered. Francis tries to find out the true culprit behind the murder and the extent of the involvement of the diabolical Dr Caligari.
Everything about the tale is skewed. The sets are precarious zigzagging structures that seem ready to topple on the protagonists and which point our eyes and the characters on extremely narrow and precipitous paths. Created in part as a solution to the limited budget, the crazy sets are augmented by shadows painted directly onto the flats rather than created through the lighting: a trick borrowed by Francis Ford Coppola for his teenage art film Rumble Fish. The pointy jaggedness of the environment anticipates the dagger of the murderer when it appears, like a long fatal finger, suggesting that murder is in the weave of the story from the very beginning.
This film has madness running all the way through it, a madness that seeps from story into reality and back again. Made in a turbulent 1920, the film exists in the immediate aftermath of the First World War in a Germany being chopped up by the Versailles Peace Treaty and perched on a razor edge between the Spartacist revolutionary left and a poisonous resurgent reactionary movement that peaked in the Kapp coup – the first to use the swastika as an emblem. This febrile atmosphere and the nascent science of psychoanalysis directly informed a German expressionism of extraordinary power, which seemed to channel cinema into the fantastic generic spaces of horror and science fiction.
Directed by Robert Wiene, Caligari is drenched in anxiety and guilt. Nothing is to be trusted: the narrator is unreliable and damaged from the first frame; the actors’ non-realistic performances suggest they are all being directed by some meta-Caligari, and the sets suggest an insidiously psychic, rather than actual, landscape. Even the ‘happy ending’ is enigmatically creepy. The psychiatrist’s sudden revelation that he now knows how to treat the patient feels as much like a threat as a promise.
Some have seen in the film a stark warning of a Germany sleepwalking towards manipulation by a hypnotic demagogue. This is true insomuch as Hitler was a result of the history that came before, but the sleepwalking analogy can only go so far before it begins to let people off the hook. Caligari is blamed for everything, and figures of authority – from the comic floppy-mustached bureaucrats to the doctors – are suspect at best, but the film has a more deeply subversive lesson. Francis has his secret wish fulfilled in the elimination of a rival and Cesare’s actions show that sleepwalkers do what they want to do anyway. In other words, the madmen run the asylum.
Watch the trailer: