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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski

Written By: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz Directed By: Robert Wiene

The Short Version

This is where horror films as we know them were born.

The Old Gothic of literature transforms into the New Gothic of cinema.

A triumph of artistic expression, and the exemplar of an artistic movement.

The villain and the “monster” are wonderfully played.

If you love movies at all, you must experience The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The Long Version

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If anything, it becomes even sharper and more flavorful with time.

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The gold standard.

“The time is short.  You die at dawn!”

When film was young, when art forms merged, and before the rise of Hollywood, there was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

There may have been an occasional ghost in earlier pictures, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is where the Old Gothic of literary horror suddenly became the New Gothic of cinematic horror.  It is where the initial fascination with the photo realism of the motion picture camera gave way to real artistic exploration, and where the possibilities of cinema fully merged with the cresting visual art movement of German Expressionism.  It is a simple story presented with alluring complexity, and the seed from which all that would follow has grown.

Behold the genesis of the horror movie as we know it.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a truly timeless film: a perfect snapshot of its own era that still very much speaks to the modern age.  At its heart is a simple tale of serial murder, complicated by themes of advancing medicine and psychology and society gone mad and a world that is absolutely anything but what it seems on the surface.  A carnival showman styling himself as “Dr. Caligari” comes to the town of Holstenwall and sets up shop at the local fair, where he means to astound audiences with his futurecasting somnambulist, Cesare.  But it’s not just Caligari and Cesare who have come to visit; so has Death at the rate of a murder a night, including that of a man predicted by Cesare to die upon the dawn.  Coincidence?  The latest victim’s best friend doesn’t think so… but can he prove it without first being discredited as a madman?

To audiences in 1920 (who were still recovering from the real-life horrors of a recently ended World War), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could easily be and was looked upon as shocking.  Ninety-three years on, it’s far less so, thanks largely to the fact that any viewer is likely to have already seen scores of if not a thousand films built upon the formula first attempted here.  But even if every twist is visible from a mile off to anyone paying real attention to what’s going on, the picture is no less compelling today than it was back then; indeed, it may be even more so now that we’re in a position to assess its influence.

Or we can just enjoy the art.

Moreso than any other motion picture you’re ever likely to see, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari looks like a woodblock print come to life.  There are no standard sets, per se; instead, there are high contrast paper backdrops with painted-on shadows and wildly exaggerated lines that discourage ninety degree angles.  This isn’t because the filmmakers were cheap; rather, it’s a deliberate choice that enhances the themes of madness and warped reality dealt with by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer’s script (which itself fits perfectly with ideas presented by the German Expressionist art movement), so that the sets are themselves a part of the storytelling mechanism.   Space and perspective are twisted freely, allowing what must certainly be a small, narrow stage to play as a massive, crowded carnival, and placing haughty officials on ridiculously high stools as they go about their business.

When the Expressionistic production design is combined with Robert Wiene’s conspiratorial style of direction that draws the viewer in as a voyeur being let in on a closely guarded secret, the result is an atmosphere that remains one of the most compelling in the history of cinema.

This is further enhanced by some remarkable performances, particularly –perhaps inevitably, given the stylistics involved – on the side of the villains.  Through the gestures and expressions that are the true dialogue of silent cinema (the title cards are just simplified cheat sheets), Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt (who would later play the villain in another all time classic, Casablanca) take a simple framework of murder and questionable reality and turn it into something that would forever change the world of cinema.  Through expressive bluster and sinister stillness, the calculating Caligari (Krauss) proves to be an unforgettable mastermind, combining all of the possibilities of the Mad Scientist, the Nefarious Gentleman, and the Shabby Charlatan into a single package with a leer that is still unmatched even nine decades later.  Even more remarkable, though, is the power of the somnambulist, Cesare (Veidt), to turn from a one-dimensional blunt instrument treated by the script as little more than a sleepwalking weapon into the prototype of the sympathetic monster.  Though it’s unlikely that most viewers will have any recollection at all of the “hero” (Friedrich Feher) after a week, the image of Cesare – made up to look like a piece of the Expressionistic set come to life – is sure to haunt the retinas of memory for a very, very long time indeed.

Rather like some guy in a hockey mask – really just a blunt instrument, according to the script – becomes so much more in a stylized atmosphere that plays by a certain set of rules.  Or how a rampaging, sewn-together ghoul becomes the catalyst for a larger discussion about the nature of the world and the reality we share.

A genre, indeed, is born.

With that said, a masterpiece though The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be, I cannot bring myself to call it artistically perfect, mainly because the director chose to hedge his bets for the sake of surer acceptance by the audience at large (which was, in all probability, not a bad business decision).  The final seconds of the film – tacked on as a moralistic afterthought – feel forced, blunting the artistic vision of the story that’s been flickering across the screen for the previous hour with a fuzzy bunny ending that absolutely does not jive with anything that’s come before.  I recognize the addition for what it is and can easily enough pretend that it isn’t there, though the irony of that is…

…something that I will leave for you to discover for yourself.

And I do encourage you to discover it.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of those motion pictures that demands to be seen by everyone at least once as a matter of simple cultural literacy, though you’ll quickly discover that despite its being a product of the very earliest days of true cinema, there is nothing simple about this movie. 

Bottom line, it’s no accident that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari became the catalyst for a whole new genre of film.  You owe it to yourself to open the cabinet and find out why.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October 31, 2013

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You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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