I liked The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just fine but, with a runtime of 70-something minutes, it feels really slight, especially after a streak of movies that hover around (or exceed) the 180-minute mark, and so I feel like I’m kind of at a loss. Underwhelmed. But that might also have to do with the fact that Caligari has a twist ending (it was all in his head!) that, while probably a radical mindfuck for audiences of its time, is by now a cliché.
If I were to guess at why this movie’s on the List I’d say it’s mostly because of the sets. Buildings and staircases are all slanted, angular; the pikes of wooden fences are uneven, so that they look like teeth, and the strangely-shaped furniture is situated in such a way that it fucks with the viewer’s depth perception.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the first horror movie. I’ve read this in five or six sources but the claim never comes with an explanation of what it means. What makes something a horror movie?
What I think might qualify it as a horror movie is its motive, which is to make the audience uncomfortable. But you could counter that by saying, “Well, what about Griffith?” Because Griffith definitely sets out to make his audience uncomfortable, particularly with battle scenes; but Griffith’s motive is different, I guess, because the violence is underscored by a wish to move you in more of an emotional and cerebral sense than a visceral one. He’s trying to influence how you look at things like war and religion and love (and race). Caligari, on the other hand, is just a celebration of the macabre. It wants to make you uncomfortable for the fun of it – and not just with depictions of violence. It wants to play with the way that your eye absorbs the image. The movie doesn’t look right, and audiences of the period had heretofore recognized film as a medium dedicated to presenting, in a stylized way, the world that we live in, something recognizable and real – which the world of Caligari is not.
The special fuckery born of how director Robert Weine frames a shot is also meant to mirror the movie’s theme, I guess, about things not being what they appear to be, and about our inability to trust our perceptions (let alone those of our narrator). The ending does suggest that the narrator’s off his rocker, and that the story we just saw was probably bullshit, but it doesn’t tell us how much of the story was a lie. Some of it could be true. But who’s defining “truth”? Our narrator, who’s lost his mind, might once have been sane, driven mad after witnessing events similar to what he’s telling us. The movie’s last shot is a sinister-looking closeup of the hospital director, who exists in the patient’s mind as the devious (and nonexistent) Caligari. It brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Cropsey, or A Clockwork Orange – movies that shed light on how fucked up these institutions can be. Maybe the story we just watched is a narrative contrived by a patient who’s trying to make sense of how the hospital workers are legitimately tormenting him.
Which is maybe the crux of horror: uncertainty. To see the characters onscreen try to cope with it while we, in the dark, grapple with our own.
If so, the film makes for a fitting start to the genre.