How The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Invented Psychological Horror Film & Brought Expressionism to the Screen (1920)

Even if you’ve nev­er actu­al­ly watched The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari, you’ve seen it. You’ve seen it through­out the cen­tu­ry of cin­e­ma his­to­ry since the film first came out, dur­ing which its influ­ence has man­i­fest­ed again and again: in Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis, Dario Argen­to’s Sus­piria, Ter­ry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, and Guiller­mo del Toro’s Night­mare Alley — not to men­tion much of the fil­mo­gra­phies of auteurs like David Lynch and Tim Bur­ton. These are just some of the films ref­er­enced by Tyler Knud­sen, bet­ter known as Cin­e­maTyler, in the video essay above, Dr. Cali­gari Did More Than Just Invent Hor­ror Movies.”

“A case can be made that Cali­gari was the first true hor­ror film,” writes Roger Ebert. In ear­li­er cin­e­mat­ic scary sto­ries, “char­ac­ters were inhab­it­ing a rec­og­niz­able world. Cali­gari cre­ates a mind­scape, a sub­jec­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal fan­ta­sy. In this world, unspeak­able hor­ror becomes pos­si­ble.”

The tech­niques employed to that end have also con­vinced cer­tain his­to­ri­ans of the medi­um to call the pic­ture “the first exam­ple in cin­e­ma of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism, a visu­al style in which not only the char­ac­ters but the world itself is out of joint.” Knud­sen places this style in his­tor­i­cal con­text, specif­i­cal­ly that of Ger­many’s Weimar Repub­lic, which was estab­lished after World War I and last­ed until the rise of the Nazis.

Polit­i­cal­ly unsta­ble but artis­ti­cal­ly fruit­ful, the Weimar peri­od gave rise to a vari­ety of new artis­tic atti­tudes, at once enthu­si­as­tic and over­whelmed. “Where­as impres­sion­ism tries to depict the real world, but only from a first glance or impres­sion instead of focus­ing on details,” Knud­sen says, “expres­sion­ism tries to get at the artist’s inner feel­ings rather than the actu­al appear­ance of the sub­ject mat­ter.” Hence the bizarre sets of Cali­gari, whose every angle looks designed to be max­i­mal­ly uncon­vinc­ing. And yet the film is entire­ly faith­ful to its par­tic­u­lar real­i­ty: not the one occu­pied by Weimar-era Ger­mans or any­one else, but the one it con­jures up in a man­ner only motion pic­tures can. 102 years lat­er, The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari remains a haunt­ing view­ing expe­ri­ence — and one expres­sive of the sheer poten­tial of cin­e­ma. You can watch it above.

Relat­ed con­tent:

10 Great Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Films: From Nos­fer­atu to The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

What Is Ger­man Expres­sion­ism? A Crash Course on the Cin­e­mat­ic Tra­di­tion That Gave Us Metrop­o­lis, Nos­fer­atu & More

Vir­ginia Woolf Watch­es The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari & Writes “The Cin­e­ma,” a Sem­i­nal Attempt to Under­stand the Pow­er of Movies (1926)

From Cali­gari to Hitler: A Look at How Cin­e­ma Laid the Foun­da­tion for Tyran­ny in Weimar Ger­many

How Ger­man Expres­sion­ism Influ­enced Tim Bur­ton: A Video Essay

How Ger­man Expres­sion­ism Gave Rise to the “Dutch” Angle, the Cam­era Shot That Defined Clas­sic Films by Welles, Hitch­cock, Taran­ti­no & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.


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