In 2011 I saw Berg’s Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. The set design was all jagged angles and long shadows and though I was there in person it almost seemed like what I was watching was in black and white. I’m not sure I’m at the musical level to quite appreciate Berg but I enjoyed the experience and most definitely lost myself in the spooky scenery. It didn’t take me long to think of where I had seen it before. It would come as a shock to me to learn that production designer Mark Lamos had never seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Weine’s silent masterpiece from 1920.
The movie, made five years before Berg premiered Wozzeck (I was not in attendance for that performance, so I can’t say what the production design was), is the pinnacle of German Expressionism, and stands as the spark at the beginning of a decade that would see the release of Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1927) in Germany before the movement came to America and became film noir. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells the story of the deranged doctor (Werner Krauss) who is presenting a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) as a carnival exhibition in a small mountain village but truly he has trained the sleepwalker to murder people during the night. The story itself is told in flashback by one of near victims of the sleeping murderer, one of the first examples of this type of chronology bending.
The straightforward story is creepy enough as somnambulism is ripe to give the willies but the twist ending where we find out our narrator isn’t as reliable as we first thought really dips the narrative in the standby expressionism themes of madness and betrayal. It makes for a deeply disturbing experience. More than that, the town of Holstenwall, as portrayed in the film is unlike any place on this plane of existence. It is a hellscape of maddening curves and terrifying shadows, Hieronymus Bosch in the style of Dr. Seuss. As in a nightmare none of the architecture makes structural sense, paths and alleys appear to stretch into eternity while huge spaces can be housed in tiny structures, the distortion is macabre. The design is by Hermann Warm, who along with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is responsible for two of the most strikingly visual of films.
It has been argued that German Expressionism is an extension of the German psyche at the time, battered by war and by poverty, existing in what might seem like a living nightmare. But the design is just a part of it, German Expressionism is not simply localized to the sets but also the casting. Think of the faces of Conrad Veidt, or Max Schreck, Emil Jannings, or Peter Lorre. These are incredibly expressive faces, immediately capable of suggesting madness and danger. Case in point, Frances (Friedrich Fehér), our narrator, who represents the person we are to identify with, is in early scenes a handsome and normal presence that becomes more and more deranged as the film descends into insanity. Veidt, however, is incredible as a robotic Frankensteinlike monster capable of looking soft and almost beautiful while he’s sleeping and then twisted and terrible when he’s engaged. For as many striking images as Caligari produces, I return again and again to not just Veidt’s face but the painted full-length poster of him, used to promote the carnival show, further distorting an already dramatic face.
Two disturbing revelations are made in the last 20 minutes of the film. First, we are told that Dr. Caligari is the director of a local insane asylum and has been obsessed with a different Dr. Caligari from the 18th century that also trained a sleepwalker to murder. There is a scene when Cesare arrives at the asylum and Caligari, elated that his chance to imitate his idol, dances in the street in a haze of obsession while the word “Caligari” dances on the screen at different angles in this wonderfully skewed Art Nouveau font. More afflicting still, we find out that Frances is not a terrified victim of Cesare but actually a fellow patient in Caligari’s asylum and that his whole story is a delusion. As scary as the idea of a slavish murderer at the control of madman is, the idea of losing your own mind is even more horrible. We get a shot near the end of the asylum yard with all the patients milling about, talking to themselves, playing pretend instruments. We see Caligari, the Director and Cesare, another patient, characters in the story but here in the real life nightmare. It’s like the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939), but cracked. Look at the design of that asylum yard and its circular sunburst floor. It’s the kind of place where the patients might have picked up their madness during their stay.
Silent films are perfect for horror. The tagline for Alien (1979) unwittingly states this magnificently “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.” Even more so in silent films. There’s something disjointed about seeing an open mouth but hearing no noise come out of it, it adds to the horror. When Cesare walks towards his victims we are suddenly aware that, as always, we cannot warn the unaware prey, but additionally there will be no creak of the floor, or atmospheric noise to alert them either. There’s no denying that sound has added to the genre of the scary movie but there’s also no denying that many of the finest entries in that genre are over 80 years old. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with its hellish use of color saturation, Nosferatu, which derives much of its energy from the same design elements as Caligari. The Man Who Laughs (1928), also drawing on Veidt’s intensity, and The Fall of The House of Usher (1928), with its disturbing overhead long shots just to name a few. It was images from pictures like this that ran through my mind while poor Wozzeck was descending into madness. I couldn’t help but feel for him. Look around you, soldier, I’m surprised you didn’t go crazy sooner.