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Should I Watch..? 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' (1920)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a silent, German Expressionist horror film released in 1920 and was directed by Robert Wiene. Written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, the film details a man's experience with a mysterious showman and his somnambulist (sleepwalking) sidekick during a murderous crime spree in his hometown. The film stars Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski and Rudolf Lettinger. The film is famous for its then-unique art-style which used jagged edges, unusual set design and painted shadows to create an ethereal and unsettling world - the result of consultation between art directors Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. Accounts differ as to the film's critical and commercial success when it was first released but it was among the first German films to be screened out of Germany as restrictions eased after World War I. Today, the film is widely revered as one of the first true horror films and it would influence not just German but international film producers and markets for decades to come.

Enjoyable

Trailer

What's It About?

A young man named Francis is sitting on a park bench with an older gentleman, discussing the horrific events that have scarred both him and his fiancée Jane. They have both come from Holstenwall, a generally quiet country village full of spiralling buildings and twisted alleyways. Francis and his good friend Alan, both of whom are in love with Jane, decide to attend the yearly fair that comes to town while discovering that the town's clerk was murdered the night before. Like most attendees, they are drawn to the tent of the captivating and enigmatic Dr Caligari who promotes the wonders of Cesare, a somnambulist Caligari claims has been asleep for almost all of his life but has mysterious visions of the future.

As Cesare wakes up and emerges from the box he sleeps in, Alan asks him how long he will live for but the answer alarms him - Cesare claims that Alan will be dead before dawn! Rightly disturbed by such a proclamation, Alan and Francis leave and return home but Cesare's prediction is tragically accurate as Alan is woken by Cesare during the night, who then kills him. Shocked by the news of his friend's murder, Francis and Jane begin to pursue justice and quickly home in on Cesare and the increasingly shady Caligari...

Main Cast

ActorRole

Werner Krauss

Dr Caligari

Conrad Veidt

Cesare

Friedrich Feher

Francis

Lil Dagover

Jane

Hans Heinz von Twardowski

Alan

Rudolf Lettinger

Dr Olsen

Technical Info

DirectorRobert Wiene

Screenplay

Carl Mayer & Hans Janowitz

Running Time

77 mins (restored version)

Release Date (UK)

31st January, 1924

Rating

12 (2021 re-rating)

Genre

Fantasy, Horror, Mystery

The film's distinctive visual style not only hints at the disturbing nature of the narrative but would also influence countless other films and genres.

The film's distinctive visual style not only hints at the disturbing nature of the narrative but would also influence countless other films and genres.

What's to Like?

If Metropolis is the genesis for most science fiction films then The Cabinet of Dr Caligari does the same for most horror movies. Instantly recognisable for its visuals alone, the film does an incredible job of portraying this dark and fantastical story in a unsettling and twisted version of reality. With sets at awkward angles and pitch black shadow painted across the (admittedly rather stagey) production, you can see obvious imitators in horror, film-noir, sci-fi and even music videos. It's all too easy to see the likes of Alice Cooper or The Cure's Robert Smith in Cesare's haunting image. Speaking of which, Veidt puts in an almost balletic performance as the sleeping serial killer and demonstrates the talent that would see him become an international star years later. Krauss and Dagover are also enjoyable in their role - Krauss becoming a cartoony villain in the grand tradition of theatre while Dagover is the very image of Expressionist femininity and repressed sexual desire.

Watching a film over a century old is an experience in and of itself, the picture crackling with imperfections and scenes broken up with heavily stylised dialogue cards. If you're new to silent cinema then it might take a little getting used to at first but after a while, it becomes second nature and they aren't as intrusive as you might imagine. Besides, the film's appearance demonstrates what these characters are going through as well as the wide-eyed performing by the cast and even the focus of the camera lens, closing in on characters trapped in their own thoughts. As the film goes on, you instead become more entranced by it as our heroes slowly uncover the vile doctor's secrets and understand more of what you're seeing until the film throws another horror movie staple at you, the twist ending. In spite of its age, it feels much more contemporary than you'd think with constant reflections in other media more familiar to us - one can easily spot moments that remind viewers of The Crow, Dark City, Blade Runner or the early Universal horror classics like Dracula or Frankenstein, among many others. It also continues to provoke debate as to its themes and meanings - most opine that the film is a study of the difference between sanity and madness as well as reflecting post-war society in Germany at the time. Some argue that the film also comments on the mistrust of authority and the obedience of German civilians in the wake of the violence of the previous few years and that is even predicts the rise of Nazism but I'm less convinced. Hindsight is misleading at times and while Caligari clearly represents those in power, I fear that the twist ending (which was not authorised by either of the writers) may have left some with the wrong impression.

Fun Facts

  • Both Janowitz and Mayer were inspired by real-life events. Both of them had visited a circus which had a man perform feats of strength after he was hypnotised while Janowitz claimed to have witnessed a young girl being murdered near an amusement park in 1913 in Hamburg. Both had also suffered after dealing with the military during the war, leaving them with a strong anti-authority perspective.
  • While the look of the film was a stylistic choice, it was also at times a practical one. With electricity being rationed in post-war Germany, beams of light and shadows were simply painted directly onto the sets and backdrops. Some of the sets were even made from paper.
  • Weeks before the film was released, a publicity campaign was launched to promote the film. Posters bearing the slogan 'Du mußt Caligari werden!' ('You have to become Caligari!') began appearing in Berlin without the slightest indication of what they were actually promoting!
  • Nobody knows why the film's German title uses the English spelling of 'Cabinet' instead of the German word 'Kabinett'.

What's Not to Like?

It would be a mighty stretch indeed to call The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a horror film in the modern sense of the genre because it has lost almost all of its power to scare. There are no grotesque special effects or jump scares that we have all become accustomed to these days, relying instead on its creepy atmosphere and feigned expressions to provoke an audience reaction. While the soundtrack does a fine job of making things tense, there is little tension in what you're seeing beyond that of the narrative - if anything, the film is actually quite charming to watch today. I confess that I had a slight smile on my face watching this because it feels like a very dark and stagey pantomime, almost like a fairy-tale due to the atmosphere it creates. Unlike another classic example of German Expressionism Nosferatu, it didn't do much to make me afraid. Perhaps Veidt would have been more effective as Cesare if he wore the same type of hideous makeup worn by Max Schreck. The only time I felt anything close to fear was after the twist ending which put a new spin on things.

But criticising this film feels almost redundant and not just because of how influential it has been over the years or how respected it is. This is a film that predates the rise of Hitler, the Great Depression, the foundation of Northern Ireland and the Tulsa Race Massacre so it's no great surprise that the film is essentially a filmed theatrical performance instead of a film as we know it. There are no location shots or lighting (the film simply uses tinted lenses to depict day or night), no audible dialogue (obviously!) and direction is kept to a minimum with a mostly static camera and only the odd close-up. Yet none of this matters that much - it's not like you're criticising the film when you're watching because it's so captivating. Like Cesare himself, the film leaves you in a trance and utterly beguiled with the wonder of it all.

Cesare, played by Veidt, would also influence many others from Universal's depiction of Frankenstein's monster to the  look of Brandon Lee as 'The Crow'.

Cesare, played by Veidt, would also influence many others from Universal's depiction of Frankenstein's monster to the look of Brandon Lee as 'The Crow'.

Should I Watch It?

While its power to shock and terrify the audience may have diminished over the intervening century, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is still a fantastic achievement for cinema as a whole. Introducing an entirely new style of moviemaking, the film is both a charming artefact and a macabre fairy-tale that will win you over in the end. The film is elevated by its game cast and that wonderfully written script and while modern horror fans might be bored to tears, this is an excellent film for cinema lovers of all types as well as film students studying the craft. Not bad for a film over one hundred years old.

Great For: film studies, cinephiles, fans of German Expressionism, inspiring filmmakers

Not So Great For: modern horror audiences, people who struggle with subtitles (or who can't read German), films of this type that followed

What Else Should I Watch?

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari might not have been the first Expressionist film to emerge from German (that honour goes to 1913's The Student Of Prague) but it arguably helped put it on the map to such an extent that, personally, I associate Expressionism almost exclusively with German cinema. Alongside other examples such as The Golem: How He Came Into The World and Nosferatu, the style was largely confined to within Germany as exports of German films were not allowed in the aftermath of World War I. As the ban was lifted, international markets opened up and adopted Expressionism for themselves, particularly in the genres of crime and horror. Universal enjoyed huge success with their horror films of the late Twenties and early Thirties while directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Orson Welles all used Expressionism in some of their films in the 1940s.

Even today, several filmmakers often use Expressionist themes and styles in their own films such as Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, Woody Allen and Werner Herzog. Herzog deliberately adopted the style for his 1979 remake Nosferatu The Vampyre while Ridley made heavy use of lighting and shadow for his seminal sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner. Shadows And Fog, Woody Allen's 1991 tribute to the silent era, isn't one of his best but successfully revives the look for his film while Burton is arguably Hollywood's biggest proponent of the style in his films, from Edward Scissorhands to Batman Returns (note the character of Max Schreck, named after the star of Nosferatu) and even Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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