Review of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)

Original title: Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari

Dir. Robert Weine
Starring: Friedrich Feher, Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt
#1 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Horror Movies list

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential film of the German Expressionist movement. Released in 1920, this film makes use of a frame story, which was a fairly groundbreaking technique in the film industry at the time. The film begins with two men sitting in a garden, discussing the disturbing things that have happened to them. This introduces the story of Dr. Caligari and his Somnambulist.

The basic plot is as follows: A madman by the name of Dr. Caligari (Krauss) travels around to different fairs to showcase his psychic Somnambulist, Cesare (Veidt), a young man who has been asleep for his entire life. Dr. Caligari’s show centers around the fact that he is able to wake Cesare from his death-like sleep so that the audience can ask questions about the past, present or future. Francis (Feher), the young man from the beginning of the film, suspects that Dr. Caligari is using Cesare to commit various murders around town.

As is the signature of the German Expressionist movement, this film makes use of a surreal, hand paintetd set. Sharp angles, heavy contrasts, leaning and twisting structures and landscapes all lend a hand to create a world that embodies the idea of anti-realism. The contrast between the frame of the story, set in real garden, and the body of the story, set on the aforementioned hand painted set, brings attention to the theme of sanity vs. insanity, which is a common theme in German Expressionist film. The visual affect of this signature is not only alarming to the viewer, but also spectacularly, disturbingly beautiful.

The writers of the film claimed that the framing of the story was against their wishes. They claimed that by adding the frame to the story, their original political message was drowned out and replaced with the opposite message. As the script was inspired by a distrust of authority after World War I, the original political message was to be a warning against letting an all-powerful government take control. By adding the frame, this message was replaced with the idea that an all-powerful government was needed in order to take care of the German people, for the greater good.

While technically this film is not the first horror movie ever made, it has been argued that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was “the first true horror film.” Many people believe that this film – and the German Expressionist movement in general – was the birth of modern American horror. I know that I can see many aspects of this film in such modern movies as Shudder Island, The Uninvited and Jacob’s Ladder. A cult film and a classic, this movie is horror history at its finest.

Horror fan specifically or film buff in general, I highly recommend this film. To quote Portlandia, you can’t understand movies without first watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


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