While Hollywood was honing its storytelling technique with the evolution of its own brand of realism, Germany was originating an entirely expressionistic cinema that would influence film noir, science fiction, horror, and the likes of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. This subjective genre would later throw up Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922) and Lang's "Metropolis" (1927), but Robert Wiene's sinister 1920 feature "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" is both visually unique and haunting in its use of the infant medium.
Dr Caligari exhibits clairvoyant sleepwalker Cesare at a fair and challenges his audience to ask him anything about the future. When Alan a little hastily enquires after the date of his own death he learns that he has until dawn. Murderous mayhem and pursuit ensues in a cock-eyed artificial landscape of over-sized furniture and ill-formed spiky trees where everything tends towards spirals and spider webs. Alan's friend Francis narrates the story, giving it a dislocated and disorientating point of view.
Melodrama was the norm in silent cinema where the relationship between characters had to be communicated with gesture. "Caligari" creates a charcoal-drawn world that accommodates these extravagant mannerisms with heavy make-up and dark costumes intensifying the attitudes of the players. The shadowy symbolism that resulted is at odds with the movies being made across the Atlantic then and now, showing that cinema was well suited to fabulous psychotic dramas. It is such an apt use of the medium as it existed in the first quarter of the 20th century that it is difficult to imagine the film done better with the benefit of sound, colour, or any innovation since.