The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: The film that inspired a genre

8 mins read

As the spooky season fast approaches, the Bo’ness Hippodrome offered up a true treat for fans of the silent experimental macabre. On Saturday October 7, the Hippodrome screened a stunning showing of the iconic and much-discussed landmark film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari for the Taste of Silents Season, with live musical accompaniment by acclaimed musician Mike Nolan.

I was lucky enough to grab tickets for myself and a few friends to the influential picture, directed by Robert Wiene during the peak of German expressionist cinema.

If you are a bloodthirsty scare-crazed horror fan, a silent film appreciator, an enjoyer of the expressionist artistic movement, or even just appreciate gorgeous, fantastical, and eerie aesthetics, you’ve likely heard of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Considered to be amongst the first ‘horror films’ ever created, Caligari was filmed and produced during the Golden Age of horror in the 1920s-1930s and regularly tops lists of the most influential, innovative, and culturally significant silent pictures ever to grace a screen.

Still from “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari“(1920). Image credit: Britanica

The historical importance of Caligari cannot be overstated, and to witness a screening in such a historic picture house feels not only special, but right.

The stars aligned in this marriage of cinema; every ingredient combining into an exquisite Halloween witches’ potion eagerly supped by the spellbound audience.

However, it must be stressed that Caligari is not simply a horror film, and that indeed our own modern definitions and expectations of such as far removed from what is offered in this picture.

Current prevalent genre tropes such as high levels of gore, violence and overt scares are in short supply. Instead the horror is in the realm of the mind, with perception, madness, and narrative twists explored to deliver a beautiful, dark, unsettling tale. Caligari is art.

Echoes of the films unique setting, style, and presentation can be found in countless works that are too numerous to count, inspiring many of your favourite filmmakers, musicians, writers, and designers across a broad spectrum.

From Tim Burton to Alfred Hitchcock, Virginia Woolf to David Lynch, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has captured the imaginations of many visionaries with its stunning expressionist visuals, itself showing influences from artists such as Dali, Munch, Picasso, and others within the surrealist and cubist movements.

Occasionally with a film of such reputation, one can be disappointed or underwhelmed when viewing it, feeling as though it fails to meet those lofty expectations that loom over and precede the work.

This is decidedly not the case with The Cabinet of Caligari, and in particular within the context of the live musical score I was privileged enough to witness.

I’ve seen it before on YouTube of all places, huddling in my bed squinting at the small screen, at the mercy of the limitations of home viewing and a slightly underwhelming backing track.

While the masterful direction, cinematography, set design, and acting can easily be appreciated in this manner, it is nothing in comparison to a live cinematic experience in Scotland’s beautiful and intimate oldest cinema.

Still from “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari“(1920). Image credit: Britanica

The film takes place in an unspecified, surreal world of jarring and jagged buildings with spiralling staircases and streets, in the fictional shadowy realm of Holstenwall, a small village.

Two young men (Francis and Alan) visit the village fair, where they observe the mysterious and sinister hypnotist Dr Caligari debut his travelling show – an act centralised on his control and apparent ownership of a somnambulist (a sleepwalker) named Cesare, who, with his exceptionally gaunt and slender frame, black unkempt hair, and deep eyebags frankly resembles literally every single male main character in Tim Burton’s body of work.

The man seemingly resides within a coffin-like box, of which Dr Caligari travels around with and keeps in his dwellings while performing in Holstenwall.

Francis and Alan fall for the same woman after seeing her in the town – the gothic and ethereal Jane – and are rather sporting about this fact, vowing to remain friends despite it.

After this point, a series of mysterious and horrifying murders begin to occur in the town, creating unease and suspicion amongst the villagers.

The film then focuses on discovering the culprit, and the resulting terror that emerges from the macabre revelations.

To describe any more of the plot would be a horrendous disservice to the carefully crafted narrative, and the twists and turns therein. No spoilers here my dear ghouls!

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a masterpiece to this day. A fraught and surreal post-war exploration and metaphor for control, authority, loss of autonomy, and power in a German society utterly devastated by the ravages of their experience in World War I, and the subsequent fallout of the steep reparations – both economic and social – on both the everyday citizen and the very soul of Germany.

The tension and fear evoked by the stunning, striking black and white cinematography, and the unease and curiosity prompted by fantastical, phantasmagorical, and bizarre painted sets resonate with myself and the audience in a way that has struggled to be replicated even now with its uniqueness.

It is an endlessly interesting picture, with a surprising amount of warmth and humour mixed with visual aesthetic intrigue. Plus it’s a damn good murder mystery!

Still from “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari“(1920) Image credit: Britanica

Enough praise cannot be heaped upon the wonderful musical accompaniment. Mike Nolan successfully manages to achieve the outcome every silent musician wants: to create a compelling and engaging score while letting the film breathe and speak for itself.

Classic piano mixed with electronic elements for both sound effects such as bells ringing, and sinister, ominous keyboard tones played alongside piano lines showcase a musician who certainly possesses flair and style, while adhering to more conventional and conservative elements to not overpower or dilute the impact and attention-grabbing nature of the picture.

The accompaniment blends into the background and melts with the film seamlessly as musician and film fuse together.

If you EVER get the chance to see this classic live, I could not recommend it more as both a gripping drama-horror, and a fascinating insight into the psyche of a nation, proving silence is just as capable of thought-provoking, spinetingling dread as any talkie. The cabinet doors open invitingly to welcome you inside. Dare you enter?

Featured Image Credit: Roger Ebert

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Aspiring writer, loves visual art.

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