Robert Wiene's 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, follows the story of a young man named Francis (Friedrih Feher), who becomes hell bent on unravelling the mysterious murders that are beginning to over shadow his town. As a travelling Doctor and his extraordinary exhibition containing a permanently sleeping man arrive in Francis' area to perform their show, arcane murders begin to materialise amongst the community. We see the events of Wiene's creation unfold through the perspective of Francis, as he hunts for answers amongst an ever growing web of disillusion and obscurity. As the plot progress' and Francis continues to piece together findings we discover that Dr Caligari may not be who he says he is, and is in fact the director of a mental institute compulsively obsessing over the study of somnambulism, or homicidal sleepwalking. Just as it seems Francis has finally deciphered the illusion that Dr Caligari has cast upon his beloved town, us the viewer are fiercely reminded of the control Wiene has over his audience as he violently shifts the change of pace and forces us to see the tale from the perspective Caligari himsef which shows us that Francis has in fact orchestrated this entire case from within the confines of his own institute cell and deluded mind.
The film's obscurity and irregularity is constantly mirrored in not only the characters and costumes but also in the wacky and set pieces themselves. This was undoubtedly a conscious style choice from Wiene as it would seem that specific settings such as the town/communal area where Dr Caligari's show and events such as the murders take place largely inhabit a more otherworldly and crooked theme. Suggesting that the darker the event, the more zany the set pieces which encase the act become . This could possibly be Wiene subtly giving the audience hints that most obscure happenings are occuring within the darkest and most fragmented depths of Francis' mind. Roger Ebert perfectly enhances this point when he states "He is making a film of delusions and deceptive appearances, about madmen and murder, and his characters exist at right angles to reality." (Roger Ebert,2009). To further enhance this concept, the use of the quote "He knows how much evil is visible through a “wrong shape”" (CA Lejune, 2014) perfectly proves that viewers over time have noted Weine's use of set design to reflect the levels of insanity the scene is holding. It is also worth mentioning that once the illusion is broken and the viewer is fully aware they are viewing from Caligari's perspective the surroundings become drastically more realistic and they almost completely lose their jagged personalities.
It is impossible to talk about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari without mentioning the monumental impact Weine's work has had on modern day classics, after viewing Caligari it is clear that the idea of reflecting a mood or theme through the art of set design has made an impression on artists such as Tim Burton when you are to compare Weine's work to the likes of Edward Scissorhands. The character of Ceaser, the sleepwalking show subject, has slight similarities to Scissorhands himself, in that both are the cause of plot altering events yet not necessarily through any fault of their own. This similarity may alter in scale yet none the less presents itself when Ceaser is the cause of a murder under the infuence of Calagari and when Scissorhands harms a resident of his neighbourhood due to his mechanical design, created by another. This idea of Ceasers action's being caused by another's doings can be backed up with the quote "Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the murderous somnambulist under Caligari's control." (Clayton Dillard, 2014).
In conclusion it would be unreasonable to judge The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as anything other than genre defining, The complex use of story telling through design as well as narrative should be nothing less than inspiring to any aspiring film maker.
Roger Ebert, 2009, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920
CA Lejune, 2014,
Clayton Dillard, 2014, http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920