German expressionism often dealt with themes of madness and betrayal. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is deeply rooted in those concepts, and explores the nature of authority as a vicious and domineering force. It explores the contrast between insanity and sanity, made poignant by its twist ending that reveals the entire story is being told by a patient in a mental institution. But right from the very start, Caligari makes it clear that the world we’re witnessing is one of distortion, not of normalcy.
The film’s visually abstract setting is impossible to ignore. Everything is wacky and manipulated, like a drunken nightmare painted in pastels and brush strokes designed to torment and distract. Roger Ebert called it a “jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives.” The world of Dr. Caligari is a place that exists nowhere but in the psyche of the deranged, which becomes poignant upon the film’s final reveal that our perspective for the film has been through the eyes of an asylum patient, Francis (Friedrich Feher). Everything we’ve seen becomes unbelievable, and the bizarre nature of the atmosphere becomes more understood. This is the wicked world of a madman, and we’ve been witnessing his interpretation of the tale.
The artistic two-dimensional sets not only worked for budgeting purposes in 1920, but are crucial to the film’s point of view and presentation. They are the chief reason the film has become such a classic, and embody the expressionist movement's aesthetic studied for decades upon decades.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari employs the use of a frame story; that is, the beginning and end of the picture encapsulate the middle, indicating what we’re seeing is a flashback. (The device is used in countless pictures, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to All About Eve (1950), to Titanic (1997)) A popular expressionist theme was that a sane mind views insanity as skewed and distorted, and the perverted perspective presented by Dr. Caligari's insane narrator attempts to evidence this by framing the story in relative normalcy. Relative, of course, because the setting of the frame story still harkens elements of the fantastic landscape of the core tale, with jagged trees and the unusual grotesque construction of the asylum which shares identity with the narrator’s images. The fact these fantastic elements carry over into the frame scenes calls into question the reliability of the film as a whole. The film’s final iris shot honing in on the asylum director’s (Werner Krauss) face, the same man who embodied the nutty Dr. Caligari in Francis' story, calls into question the sanity of the entire film.
In his book “A Critical History of German Film,” German film historian Stephen Brockmann says, “In the end, the film is not just about one unfortunate madman; it is about an entire world that is possibly out of balance.” The film concludes without the viewer being able to truly distinguish who is insane and who is crazy - whether it’s the one who has been providing the narration or the asylum director.
Is the film an extension of Francis’ fantasies and insanity, or is the director as insane as he is? The madness lives in the confusion of what’s real and what isn’t, if anything, and the indistinguishable nature of the two.