The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
Release year: 1920
Director: Robert Wiene
Screenwriter: Carl Meyer, Hans Janowitz
Starring: Werner Kraus, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, Ludwig Rex
Young Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells the story of the horrible experience he and his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) went through when the annual fair came to Holstenwall. Here they visited the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), where the mysterious doctor exhibited the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Soon after people start dying and Francis suspects Dr. Caligari and Cesare are involved.
Dr. Caligari is not just one of the most famous German silent movie (perhaps only surpassed by Nosferatu from 1922), it is also a movie considered the quientessential work of German Expresssionist cinema. With its unrealistic scenes of geometrically absurd and the typical expressionistic theme of madness, Dr. Caligari is a fine example of the movement brought foreward by the first World War. But Caligari also mixes horror with fantasy in a dream-like atmosphere of insanity and murder, where the twisted structure and sharp forms of the set perfectly supports the story. Directed by Robert Wiene (Der Andere, 1930) the movie is a strong critique of the German government, with Dr. Caligari representing the war industry and Cesare the common man made murderers by the state. But Caligari is more than a social criticism, it is surprisingly modern style story, told with a frame story. A story about murder, love and madness served with a strong sense of storytelling. The expressive face of Kraus (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924) makes him a perfect cast as the devilish Dr. Caligari while Veidt (Casablanca, 1942) manage to creep you out as the sleepwalking victim. The story is led by Francis, played passionately by Feher (Die Befreiung der Schweiz und die Sage vom Wilhelm Tell, 1913), a common man in love with a beautiful woman, who unwillingly gets caught in Dr. Caligari’s web. The excessive make-up strongly emphasize the good and the bad and can easily lull you into thinking you know everything that is going on. But when it comes to plot twists, Caligari is surprisingly ahead of its time and the sparse and crude settings that is made to enhance rather than convince of realism, brings your thoughts to the Dogme 95 movement many years later. The movie plays out like a feverish nightmare and in the end, you realize that just like the strong contrast between light and shadow used in the movie, this is a movie very much about the light and the darkness. If you have only seen the comedy silent movies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, or perhaps not even that, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s is a must see.
Robert Wiene meant to make a sequel to the movie and bought the rights from Universum Film AG, but he never got around to making it before his death in 1938.
‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ was released just as foreign film industries were easing restrictions on the import of German films following World War I, so it was screened internationally.
The movie is often cited as the first horror movie. But Georges Méliès already made silent shorts with supernatural elements in the late 1890s and Edison Studios made a version Frankenstein ten years earlier. The word ‘horror’ wasn’t used to describe the genre until Universal’s monster films were released in the 1930s.