I chose to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari knowing nothing about the movie other than it was a classic horror film and 77 minutes long. I did not realize it was from 1920, silent, or in the “German Expressionist” style.
While writing this review, I probably spent more time on Wikipedia looking up fun facts related to this movie than I did watching it.
First, German Expressionism. One hallmark of movies in this style this is use of "wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects."1 This is true. From the angular, curly-cued tents at the fair to starbursts and stripes on the floors to several quasi-triangular doors, the sets really are a treat. Even in black and white.
Another element of this movement is making films centered around "madness, insanity, betrayal, and other 'intellectual' topics."2 The plot focuses on a man, Francis, (played by Friedrich Feher) relating a tale about an evil doctor (played with significant creepiness by Werner Krauss). This doctor emerges at the town fair with a somnambulist (a sleepwalker, for those of you who don't speak Latin) named Cesare who, the doctor claims, can answer questions about the future as asked by the crowd.
After Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) correctly predicts Francis’s friend Alan will not live to see the next day, as he is then murdered in his sleep, suspicions run high. Eventually Alan discovers the doctor is the director of an insane asylum and is preoccupied with the tale of a 17th century monk named Caligari, who taught a somnambulist to kill people via the same scheme the doctor is currently enacting.
Since there are only 77 minutes in this silent film, I am on the verge of spoiling the entire plot. You will have to watch the rest of the movie yourself to find out why this film is credited as introducing the twist ending (which if you have read the High Tension review, is not always a good thing).
However, there are several good things about this film. If you like moody orchestral music, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is chock full of it. If you like scenes to fade in and fade out – even if they are only a few seconds long – this movie is for you. If you like early special effects, there is a fantastic scene where the doctor's consuming obsession with Caligari is visualized by the phrase "you must become Caligari" appearing and disappearing word by word on the screen, surrounding him. If you are a fan of super heavy eyeliner and/or the goth look, this might be your new cult favorite (fun fact: both Edward Scissorhands and The Crow were inspired by Cesare the somnambulist).3 Also, modern references to the film continue as Rob Zombie, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay have given nods to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the "Living Dead Girl," "Otherside" and "Cemeteries of London" videos, respectively.4
If you have less than an hour to spare or have little patience for slow-moving films, you might consider looking up the 55-minute version on YouTube. I should have watched this one as I nodded off during the last 10 minutes of the film (i.e. the entire plot twist) and had to rewatch them.
A Very Lazy Works Cited List
Written by Jennifer Venson