Continuing on our theme of silent films we come to one of the first horror films. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is set up as a long and continuous flash back from our highly distraught antagonist: Francis. The film was shot in 1920 and so the camera was still a large stationary machine. This means we still get the feeling of watching a more elaborate theatrical production but in this film we are taken a step further. After we are introduced to Francis in the opening shots we are taken inside his memories to see things as he remembers them. Once the transition is made the camera is no longer just a spectator on a scene, but rather it is a window inside the head of a madman. This is something audiences had never seen and it is a technique still used today in films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Lyne’s Jacobs Ladder. The difference in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is that we do not follow our narrator quite so closely. This gives us the sense that he is retelling the events from a combination of his memory, the bits he put together after the fact and his own wild speculation.
The film itself is shot in the German expressionist style and is one of its clearest examples. This is easiest to explain in terms of the visual style of the film. The biggest indication of being an expressionist film is the use of contrast to agitate the viewer. This is most evident in the set design where the use of conventional lighting was abandoned for the use of painted sets. The trick was that the lights could not be bright enough, to produce dark enough shadows, while remaining filmable. As you can imagine this creates a rather strange world where characters can walk through shadow and still be lit up and our sense of reality is firmly distorted.
It seems odd to talk about the sound in a silent film but it can have a noticeable effect on your experience. When this film was originally being screened there was no specific core attached to it. This meant the theatre screening it had to come up with musicians and instruments but also some piece of music that was suitable. The music paired with the film could vary drastically from theatre to theatre based on how the proprietor read the tone of the scenes. There are a number of versions of the film in circulation today with a variety of soundtracks.
There is no need for a narrator since we are given title card through out the film. Fortunately this film is also in the public domain and can be viewed freely. I recommend we once again don our attention spans and sit back to enjoy the show: