The film plays like a nightmare and stays with you like a nightmare
Horror, film noir and gothic cinema – all can be traced back to Caligari.
There is something totally magnificent about this early German horror. Quite apart from the skewed story narrative that has many different interpretations, the whole production encompasses and indeed kick-started the German expressionism movement that was to become so influential throughout the world.
A young man explains a chilling story to his companion. The mysterious Dr Caligari, a hypnotist with a somnambulist who tells the future, terrorises a small German town. But as the story unfolds it appears it is just the ravings of a madman. Or is it? Could it be that the insane asylum director is one and the same: Dr Caligari?
There is no denying the power and surreal nature of what can justifiably be called the birth of horror films. It also holds the claim to fame of being the film that ushered in the German expressionism movement that was so influential. And of course, its skewed narrative implies multiple interpretations; it’s why it can be viewed multiple times and remain enjoyable.
The weird and nightmarish painted sets were something from fantasy; a horror fantasy leading to the whole psychologically sinister atmosphere that seeps through the screen. The young man may be telling the story, but the audience is living it. The fact that it has several interpretations has kept the film alive quite apart from its place in film history. Many of the great German directors had a hand in its development and it is because of them that the film towers above many of its peers. This, along with Nosferatu and The Golem (and to a lesser extent the Phantom Carriage) helped define a genre and, in effect, wrote the film grammar that is still being used today.
Clearly a nightmare is unfolding before you; the film plays like a nightmare and stays with you like a nightmare. Dr Caligari is a nightmare and as a result the film is psychologically intense and utterly diabolical. A masterpiece.
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