As the spindly figure of Cesare ambles along with a damsel in distress slung over his shoulder, hunted by the law on a pathway that defies all architectural sense, a few things are being born into the popular cinema vernacular. Not only do you realise that this is Expressionism functioning at its highest, but you get the feeling that every psychological thriller, gothic fable and crime noir is being formed in an early, embryonic state, over the course of a mere seventy-seven minutes.
Sitting on a bench, a man by the name of Francis relates a tale to an elderly companion. It’s a tale of woe, of murder, of foreboding horror; cutting back in time to the town of Holstenwall, an ominous new attraction rolls into the annual fair – with an even more ominous figure at the helm. Dr. Caligari presents Cesare the Somnambulist, a sleepwalking near-zombie who can tell people’s fortune; he predicts that one of the townsfolk will meet their end by dawn, only for them to be ruthlessly murdered while in bed – and Caligari and Cesare are the prime suspects. A deftly realised chaos follows; the mystery deepens as identities are shifted, intense psychological turmoil racks the mind of Francis, who was the friend of the murdered man; meanwhile, Cesare battles his own sleepwalking demons. It’s a movie stricken with obsession in every frame.
Despite a score that successfully mirrors the movie’s dissonance and clutter, but feels trite at other times, the new restoration allows Das Cabinet’s insanity to shine through brighter and clearer than ever; emotionally charged close-ups of the faces of Francis, Cesare, and Dr. Caligari are no longer lost in the dusty static of ancient prints, even nearly a hundred years on. But that’s scratching the surface of the film’s gigantic influence; Roger Ebert described it as ‘the first true horror film’, and with its extraordinary slanted, geometrically absurd sets, it must have been almost a shock to behold upon its release in 1920. Its effect can be felt even in more ‘mainstream’ silent cinema, such as in 1927’s Sunrise:
To speak about the plot in more detail would be of little use. While the story itself has its fair share of red herrings and bait and switches, at the film’s core is a terrifyingly oblique, utterly contemporary glimpse under the hood of madness. The flashback in which the bulk of Das Cabinet is told – also one of the first framing devices seen in film – is a patchwork concept, an idea of what really happened in Holstenwall. Outside of the flashback, in the supposed real world, straight lines dominate the sets – but the truth still eludes, as Francis realises he may be caught in a moebius strip reality. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari hints that the truth may be found elsewhere; perhaps between the lines, or by bending them to breaking point.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is out now in cinemas.