THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI terrifies me. Its story of mysterious murders in a small German town after the arrival of a travelling fair has led to its being called the first true horror film. Its claim to fame is that it is the masterpiece of German Expressionism. Jagged lines, stylised sets and abstract backdrops are its mainstay, making for some incredible and unusual cinema.
That’s not why it scares me, though. For a lot of people DR CALIGARI is one of the most terrifying insights into the minds of men returning from World War I. For that reason I see it as the ultimate film about war.
The story was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two German war veterans who came back from the trenches as pacifists. They helped morph those same trenches into the jagged alleyways and claustrophobic streets that fill the film.
In the trenches, men were haunted by the very real threat of what they called ‘shell shock’. The symptoms included loss of vision, hearing, speech and memory; paralysis; sleepwalking; convulsions; paranoia; hysteria; and sudden violent outbursts. Those who suffered from shell shock often found themselves at the mercy of psychiatrists, a professional class that became utterly despised after the war because of the way they brutalised and tortured patients they considered cowards rather than victims.
Shell shock and the fear of psychiatrists can be seen throughout DR CALIGARI. The prime suspect in the murders is a somnambulist, or sleepwalker, who is kept in a coffin. Somnambulism was a typical symptom among soldiers who had been ‘buried alive’ by the shell explosions. And in this film, as in the trenches, all the action happens at dawn.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI is a real treasure. It should be seen on the big screen, and I think it should be watched with its historical context in mind. Within it lies great artistry, as well as traumatic memories of war.