Film, like all art forms, is a historical document. Reflecting the time and place they were made. Providing a cultural response to the then-current zeitgeist. Self-reflection through intense examination or mockery. That is why we currently have a myriad of remakes and sequels to beloved franchises and a truckload of nostalgia porn. We desperately want to go back 10+ years.
Film has always reflected or reacted to the attitudes of the era, be it consciously or unconsciously. Some genres are better at it than others. Comedy, for example. Sci-Fi, meanwhile, is never about the future, always today.
And then there is Horror. Horror allows us to face our fears in a controlled way. To take stock after a disaster. To give a narrative study to the shape of our collective anxieties. Such as after World War One, when Britain had Modernism and bourgeoisie angst.
Germany had Expressionism and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).
Set in a madman’s idea of what a town should look like, Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounts the ordeal he and his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) experienced. Through the sharped twisted streets, the sinister Caligari (Werner Krauss) displays a spectacle at the town fair. In a coffin-like box, he keeps the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who can answer any question. Francis and Jane’s friend, to test the validity, asks how much longer he shall live. Cesare replies “The time is short. You die at dawn.” Sure enough, Frances’ friend is found dead the next day. As the people who have displeased Caligari turn up dead, Frances discovers a shocking truth about the murders and Caligari as the knife closes in on Jane.
The first thing that strikes everyone about Caligari is the set design. A twisted forest of sharp angles, welding of the natural and manufactured world, that looms in over the characters. The town does not make geographical sense, to say the least. It is as though someone has had the concept of a city described to them. The oppressive air of the town goes hand in hand with the actions of the characters, like clockwork robots from the uncanny valley. Pretending to be human. The whole film feels like waking from a fever.
Upsetting angles, inky-black shadows, and not-so-real people. It’s what set the benchmark for German Expressionist Cinema.
Caligari can be read as the first slasher film ever. A crazed man sends his pet murder out to commit revenge on his enemies and controls the town through fear. But that sells it short. It’s a horror that comes not just from the bizarre actions of Caligari and Cesare, nor only the oppression created by the cinematography. It comes from the film holding up a dark mirror to our world and seeing the tyranny, wanton cruelty, and absurdity of those with power. The abuse of power by those who should be rational. Those like the leadership of Germany during the war and its aftermath.
Screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer were both veterans of the First World War, made jaded by the senselessness of the conflict and German leadership. Caligari is an attack on arbitrary authority. Caligari the character is the stand-in for the German administration, making the sleepwalking Cesare (German people) commit murder and mayhem for him on a whim. But it goes beyond the symbolism of a single despot. The entire world of Caligari is dominated by regimental authority and bureaucratic tyranny that is both rotten to the core, and completely broken. Officials literally sit on high in darkened rooms made up of violent angles, dictating the lives of people who conform unquestionably into rigid roles, while a psychopath assumes power. It’s Germany during the war and in the power struggle of the November Revolution when brutal street battles dominated Germany.
And you thought the violently painted backdrop was just for aesthetics.
I could spend the rest of the day discussing the film and barely scratch the surface—a study of power, psychosis, and trauma. Over a hundred years old, it is in the public domain and available over most free–to–watch streaming sites.