Thought of as “the first true horror film” by Roger Ebert, Caligari was a visual and thematic turn of pace for cinema at the time. On the surface it is the story of Holstenwall: a small town tormented by murder. After the death of his friend, Francis (played by Friedrich Fehér) sets out to find the killer, and directs his focus towards a new double-act at the local circus: ‘Dr Caligari’ (Werner Krauss) and his haunting somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). This brief synopsis must be taken with a grain of salt, because if Robert Wiene’s horror classic teaches us anything, it is that not everything is as it seems.
Caligari’s history, like the movie itself, is rife with deception, false-impressions, and imagined memories. Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, the film’s screenwriters, appear to have been influenced by a great many things: from torrid experiences in WW1 (such as Meyer faking madness to avoid military service), to memories of Berlin circuses, to the Expressionism of Paul Wegener, to Janowitz being a potential witness to a murder.
The film is commonly interpreted as a criticism of authority and a warning against the dangers of blind conformity. However, Hermann Warm—the man responsible for the film’s oblique and jarring sets—said that Mayer was not driven by politics when he wrote the script. Perhaps this motivation was appended in retrospect. Nonetheless, when you watch the movie for the first time, the interpretation will almost certainly come as an afterthought. You will find yourself much too preoccupied with the delocalising set design, unable to fully distinguish hills from streets, or living quarters from hospitals. However, the most engrossing element by far is Veidt’s unearthly performance—from the way he slinks around the streets at night, to his terrorising gaze, teetering between a look of piercing sentience, and the torpid stare of a waking dream.
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Starring: Werner Krauss; Conrad Veidt; Friedrich Fehér; Lil Dagover