With oddly angled sets that look as if they have been cut by kids out of construction paper, makeup reminiscent of Kabuki theater and thematically color-tinted frames, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first
films to treat the cinema not just as an extension of traditional theater but as an amalgamation of all the arts. This is about a mysterious doctor (Werner Krauss) who hypnotizes a man into committing murder, but it’s less concerned with thrills than mood. An eerie blue coats the screen for the night scenes, while a faded green gives others a queasy vibe. Even the dialogue titles are expressive – it looks as if a shaky hand has scripted the jagged, violent letters. As Cesare, the killer, Conrad Veidt has a forlorn, nearly catatonic air. Both murderer and victim, Cesare is like a combination of the first movie zombie and a dangerous relative of Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands. For all its influence on filmmakers from F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) to Tim Burton, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems to have been equally influenced by the more deranged paintings of Edvard Munch, with their emotional brushstrokes and somber subject matter. The story is set in a small town, but the off-kilter production design suggests it’s actually taking place within the confines of a deeply disturbed mind. A twist ending reveals that director Robert Wiene’s true subject matter is, indeed, insanity. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari concludes by exploring the worst fear of all: the one that only exists in your head.