The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Director's Influence on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Legendary director Fritz Lang was initially offered the job of directing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but turned it down. Into 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 is one of the most influential in the history of cinema. The genre in which Wiene's work belongs, German Expressionism, seeks to reflect the unsettled emotional state of a character by way of pure cinematic technique. Those techniques are employed not just in an unrealistic, but an actively anti-realistic manner as a means of more accurately portraying the characters' unstable footing in an incomprehensible world. Other examples of German Expressionist horror include Nosferatu, The Golem, and Vampyr.

The most palpable Expressionist signatures in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are the genuinely inexplicable architectural inconsistencies and the use of lighting to tell a story. The silhouettes and shadows that cascade across the set were actually constructed from paint rather than light. Wiene engaged this distortion of set construction and lighting design to further enhance the angular consistency of his photography. Caligari doesn’t just feature asymmetrical camera angles; the whole world that the movie pictures seems disproportionate and constantly frustrates the viewer's expectations of what the world should look like.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set the template for German Expressionist cinema’s influence on many other films to come out of Hollywood, especially the horror films produced by Universal Studios during the 1930s and 1940s. Wiene took Expressionist style to the extreme through an amplification of the movement’s signature techniques: bizarrely exaggerated sets, peculiarly off-kilter camera angles and impossibly long and improbably dark shadows. While Wiene explored an extremity of distortion that separates his work from more conventional Hollywood films, his work set the stage for fantastical American horror films about vampires, werewolves, zombies and resurrected mummies as the lead characters.

The influence of Robert Wiene’s direction of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be felt in the horror genre itself. Two of the earliest examples of classic Hollywood horror movies to be most obviously influenced by Wiene’s stylistic choices are and The Black Cat (1934) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Indeed, the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his uncouth monster mirrors the story of Caligari and his dependent somnambulist. The design schemes and storytelling tactics further echo Wiene's influence.

Later examples of films influenced by Wiene’s direction of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari range from the genre of film noir (complete with distorted camera angles and portentous shadows) to the macabre and gothic work of Tim Burton.