Legendary director Fritz Lang was initially offered the job of directing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but turned it down. In his place stepped Robert Wiene and the rest is filmmaking history. Many point to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as the very first horror movie. While that designation is certainly arguable, what is beyond argument is that Wiene’s direction of the film would go on to become one of the most influential in the history of the cinema.
German Expressionism reflects the unsettled emotional state of a character by way of pure cinematic technique. Those techniques are employed not just in an unrealistic, but anti-realistic manner as a means of more accurately portraying their unstable footing in an incomprehensible world. Examples of German Expressionist horror include Nosferatu, The Golem, and Vampyr.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set the template for German Expressionist cinema’s influence on many other films to come out of Hollywood—but especially the horror films produced by Universal Studios during the 1930s and 1940s—by taking existing Expressionist style to the extreme through the amplification of the movement’s signature techniques: bizarrely exaggerated sets, peculiarly off-kilter camera angles and impossibly long and improbably dark shadows. While the extremities of distortion as a mechanism for expressing the internal psychological struggle of its characters made Robert Wiene’s influence on German Expression incapable of being easily adopted for use in most conventional Hollywood films, it was an artistic manifestation which found the perfect mate in the equally unrealistic milieu featuring vampires, werewolves, zombies and resurrected mummies as the lead characters.
The most palpable cinematic expression of Robert Wiene’s Expressionist techniques in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are the genuinely inexplicable architectural inconsistencies mandated by silhouettes and shadows that were actually constructed from paint rather than light. Wiene engaged this distortion of set construction to further enhance the angular consistency of his photography; Caligari doesn’t just feature asymmetrical camera angles…it features angles disproportionate to any sense of symmetrical expectations.
The influence of Robert Wiene’s direction of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be felt in one degree or another in nearly every horror film to appear in its wake. Two of the earliest examples of classic Hollywood horror movies to be most obviously influenced by by Wiene’s stylistic choices are and The Black Cat (1934) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). The latter is most notable since it followed the first two Universal Studios films about Frankenstein which both demonstrate a clear influence by Wiene in particular and German Expressionism in general. Nevertheless, both predecessors fall far short of exhibiting an explicitly Expressionist intent to the degree which the unusually bizarre interiors of Son of Frankenstein exhibits.
Later examples of films influenced by Wiene’s direction of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari range from the entire film noir genre’s conventions of distorted camera angles and heavy use of shadows to the entire canon of Tim Burton films to the long history of fantasy nightmare sequences and bad drug trips in films having no connection whatever to the horror genre.