Despite the tireless work of generations of cineaste’ aesthetes, there exist precious few films that could truly have each one of their frames displayed in a museum and viewed as purely visual works of art. That’s not to say that, after a century-and-a-quarter of moving pictures, our great cinematographers haven’t composed staggering works of lyrical genius, but there’s a fine line separating a dynamic portrayal of action in motion and the understated level of detail than can be captured in a single, meticulously crafted painting. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and although I could probably pick a selection from each decade of the medium’s existence, none of them could hold a candle to the Alpha and Omega: Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent masterwork, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Produced within the German Weimar Republic at the height of its creative freedom, The Cabinet exemplifies Expressionism, the grandiose, self-reflexive artistic style which defined the Post WWI moment in Western Europe. The film follows two young friends, Francis and Alan, who, along with their shared love interest Jane, visit a traveling carnival for an afternoon of amusement. There, they encounter the strange, captivating Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his mute assistant, Cesar (Conrad Veidt). As it turns out, Caligari has placed Cesar under a powerful hypnotic spell, forcing the poor creature to do his nefarious bidding at night, while keeping him cooped up in an ominous cabinet during the day. Soon after this creepy encounter, Allen is found brutally murdered. Suspecting Caligari and Cesar, Francis and Jane begin to investigate the pair, thus plunging into a dark world of treachery and madness.
Though the plot is appropriately sinister and invented—it’s been credited as both the first twist ending and the first real horror film ever made—it’s the movie’s visual style that truly sets it apart. The surrealistically flat sets, designed by noted art director Hermann Warm, are abstract and hallucinatory, jaggedly bending in on themselves like imploding fever dreams. The lighting plays heavily with shadows and polarized shades of black-and-white, setting a clear precedent for the film noir movement of later decades. As a final, disorienting touch, Wiene had the actors jerkily move about the set in a manner more befitting of modern dance than traditional blocking. The cumulative sum of these elements is singularly bizarre, beautiful, and every bit as hypnotic as the good Dr. Caligari himself.
Interestingly, The Cabinet was initially conceived as a directorial vehicle for noted German auteur Fritz Lang, who would letter go on to helm the seminal silent classic Metropolis. Though that film may have a more enduring legacy, I would argue that this one left the longer lasting imprint on the visual language of film as we’ve come to know it. By combining the modernist flavor of the zeitgeist with the newly expanded visual language of the cinema, Wiene and his crack team managed to create a film that plays more like a painting—a difficult feat indeed. Indeed, what better way to experience such a rarified work than through a Blu-Ray viewing? Special features include an hour-long documentary about the film’s creation of the horror genre and a special booklet essay by prominent film journalist Kristin Thompson.