Immediately following WWI German Expressionist art dominated silent films for over a decade and greatly influenced filmmakers that grew from its roots--Alfred Hitchcock in particular initially learned film technique while working in Germany, and subtly incorporated Expressionist elements in his films. Certainly Hitch meticulously worked with set design and camera angles, continually seeking to get inside the heads of viewers by distorting reality.
With its sharp angles and distorted shapes Expressionism--like Cubism and other Modernistic art--strives to impose emotional content on the objects portrayed. Thus, weird angles may suggest deranged minds and oversized furniture may indicate over-reliance on status. Although German Expressionist filmmakers F.W. Murnau, Carl Theodore Dreyer, and Fritz Lang are undeniably the premier auteurs of the genre, it all began with Robert Wiene and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari).
For a 1920 release, Wiene's film certainly looks "modern," meaning weird enough to still be considered avant-garde. The film starts normally enough with a conventional framing devise. Seated on an apparent park bench, Francis (Friedrich Feher) watches his oblivious fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) pass by, and narrates a bizarre flashback very much in the tradition of Edgar Alan Poe's tales like "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Prefacing his as a "one-upmanship" yarn over his male companion's story, Francis proceeds with his mysterious account.
At this point "normal" sets are replaces with surreal ones to set Francis' narrative apart from the opening and closing bookends. Francis and his best friend (and rival suitor) Alan (Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski) visit a local fair, where they encounter mad scientist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) exhibiting somnambulist Cesare (young Conrad Veidt of later Casablanca fame), who supposedly can predict the future when beckoned by Caligari. With Willy Hameister's camera zooming in for an extreme close-up, Cesare gradually opens his eyes in young Mick Jagger style, answering Alan's query about how long he has to live with an answer from Hell: "Until dawn tomorrow!"
This sets off an inevitable chain of events that play out like many mystery thrillers and foreshadow Dracula and Frankenstein scenarios to come--complete with murders, a deranged scientist, an abduction, befuddled police, deceptions, and an innocent protagonist that must turn detective to solve the crime spree. Largely a plot device, this is not a film for subtle character development, as the acting is very stylized. Veidt's eerie performance makes the deepest impression, as his slow moving relentless zombie pace contrasts with the other characters so drastically, yet this is not what makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stand out as a groundbreaking classic.
One is a great plot twist that doesn't play as simply as the one trick wonder of the recent The Sixth Sense. Although it may shock first time viewers, it doesn't feel manipulative or forced, and subsequent viewings reveal just how well its creators have developed the themes of madness; hence, the common association with Poe. With its multiple layers the deceptive melodramatic screenplay has held up over the years as a real shocker--the kind that certainly had to please the Master of Suspense himself.
Yet beyond the tightly constructed thriller, this film will always be regarded as an art piece due to the fantastic sets and creative cinematography. It was certainly unlike anything that had ever screened before, and has influenced countless scores of filmmakers. Robert Wiene's film mesmerizes with its fantastic swirling and angular Expressionistic sets, worthy of the art museums where the film is often screened.
As much as any individual silent classic Caligari firmly established artistic credibility for film, and it deserves accolades. Virtually all film students have seen this, but the unpretentious classic can also be enjoyed by anyone that simply appreciates a well told story. At its core is a well crafted mystery thriller that is far more satisfying than most modern Hollywood formula fare. It just takes getting over any prejudices against silent cinema and black and white cinematography.