A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1920 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Caligari. Our first horror movie. Possibly the first horror film.

There were some scary/horror shorts made earlier, like The Haunted Castle, and a 1910 version of Frankenstein, but in terms of straight up horror features, nobody had the ball rolling quite like ze Germans did. German Expressionist filmmaking is not only the basis for all horror movies of the next few decades, but also of other genres, like noir. And 1920 was really the year where horror movies took off, mainly with Caligari as well as Der Golem. (I could say THE Golem, but, no I can’t.) And of course, Nosferatu, two years after this as well, is another very famous early horror film.

Mostly I’m here to talk about the impact of German Expressionism on later film. Caligari is a great film in its own regard, but it’s really its style that would resonate most throughout film history.

First, let’s talk about the movie itself – A man tells a story to another man. It’s about him and his friend who are amicably competing for a woman’s affections. Meanwhile, Dr. Caligari comes to town with a somnambulist (sleepwalker) named Cesare, who sleeps all the time and only wakes up when he tells him to. He shows him off as a carnival sideshow, essentially. Meanwhile, murders start happening. And our protagonist is certain it’s Caligari and Cesare. So he investigates. And then Caligari goes to have Cesare kill Jane, the woman. Only he falls in love with her, because that’s what the monster does. And he kidnaps her and races across the rooftops, and they chase him and kill him. Then they go to Caligari, who is actually the director of an insane asylum, who ends up confessing his crimes and becomes an inmate in his own asylum. Then, of course, we find out the whole thing is made up, and the man telling the story is actually an asylum patient, “Jane” is actually another patient, as is “Cesare,” and Caligari is the head of the asylum, who is trying to cure the man.

So really, it’s one of the original “it was all a dream” endings. Or what have you. The ending where everything you saw wasn’t real and the unreliable narrator in the horror movie who is actually crazy. This is the first version of that in movies.

But, like I said, what I really want to talk about is the German Expressionism. Because that shit is amazing. I’m sure you’ve most likely seen the original Universal Horror movies like Dracula and Frankenstein. Well, if you look at their sets, you’ll see that they were (somewhat) based on German Expressionism. It’s hard to truly redo what the Germans did, because it’s so unique, but they did generally follow the lead and adapted it into the Hollywood system.

German Expressionism is basically a highly stylized form of cinema, where the sets are deliberately made to look unrealistic. Like Metropolis. The sets are completely hyper real, and perfectly fit the tone of horror, because everything is taken to the extreme and it invokes a scary sort of atmosphere. It’s very reliant on geometric shapes and things painted on the walls rather than physically being on the set. Like, if you saw a street lamp, chances are it was actually painted on a wall in the background and not actually there. It was very dark style of filmmaking and played heavily with light and shadows. Which is why it would eventually become an influence on film noir, which used lighting techniques similar to Expressionist films (and even some of the same DPs as well, to an extent).

So, for all those reasons, Caligari feels like the choice for 1921. First real memorable horror feature, great example of German Expressionism, film cited as probably introducing the twist ending to cinema, and first film to feature a German somnambulist serial killer (that far-too-repeated genre).

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