The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Revisiting the good doctor’s curio cabinet.


Like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the sort of film audiences tend to absorb through other other texts—whether the loving tributes of Tim Burton’s warped fantasias or the direct nods in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island—before they see it outright. That’s a shame, because Robert Wiene’s horror classic is as psychologically nuanced as it is beautifully designed. It’s both influential, in the fusty old academic sense, and compelling.

As any undergraduate class in film studies is sure to point out, Wiene’s film is the most famous example of the German Expressionism that dominated the 1920s, and perhaps the purest case, years before signature directors like Fritz Lang took their talents to Hollywood, and even longer before quirky filmmakers like Burton bent the style to suit their kinder and gentler projects. Thumbing their nose at the codes of realism, expressionist filmmakers refused the burden of representing the world, turning their sets into hyper-aestheticized expressions of their cracked characters’ emotionally heightened states. Few were as successful in that regard as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which amplifies the intensity of the titular quack’s world before pulling back the curtain to reveal that vision as the paranoid fantasy of the strait-laced male lead.

Although a heady modernist streak certainly runs through the movement, you can see why Wiene’s film has proven accessible to such disparate artists over the years. If the deliriously winding roads and geometrically impossible backgrounds, which are painted onto the walls, don’t quite seem real, they nevertheless adhere to a heightened form of reality all too recognizable for us paranoid spectators as the stuff of dreams and cinema.