"The difference between myself and a madman," says Dalí, "is that I'm not mad." The foundational nightmare vision begins with a little joke, drolly understated to set off the heavy expressionism all around, two men on a bench interrupted by the catatonic maiden in pale sheets drifting by ("That’s my fiancée"). A tale told in discordant angles, a slanting cabin with an even more slanting window, the German psyche between wars. Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) comes to town like a bewigged, top-hatted bullfrog; at the clerk’s office he’s dwarfed and stooped, at his fairground tent he’s the master seer unveiling Cesare the Somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) for the audience. (Kokoschka is the main modality, Veidt’s painted visage twitching in a rare close-up introduces Munch.) Turning amateur sleuth in the midst of a string of murders, the callow hero (Friedrich Feher) questions the malefic carny while the sleepwalking slave slinks like Nijinsky toward the dormant beauty (Lil Dagover). "There are spirits... everywhere." The corkscrew mind and the warping eye, these are the elements of Robert Wiene’s legendary trance-film. Streets and landscapes are but jagged forms drawn on paper backdrops (painted shadows go one way while the actors’ shadows go another), the stark camera records the all-engulfing distortion head-on: Early on, an iris-encircled glimpse of a carousel precariously spinning gives way to an off-kilter tableau, the stagy frame unsettled by line upon line of bustling-baleful movement. "The irresistible passion of my life is being fulfilled," reads the lunatic’s scribbled diary, a parable of domination to chill Kracauer’s blood. Lang is the natural inheritor of this, the influence down the decades encompasses everything from Frankenstein to Spellbound to Amadeus to Mulholland Drive. The zigzagging road leads to a mental asylum -- the embodiment of sinister authority, a dungeon disguised as sanatorium, or that chamber of projected visions known as cinema? Cinematography by Willy Hameister. Décor by Hermann Warm, Walter Reiman, and Walter Röhrig. With Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce