Directed by: Robert Wiene.
Written by: Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz.
Starring: Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Friedrich Feher (Francis), Lil Dagover (Jane Olsen), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Alan), Rudolf Lettinger (Dr. Olsen).
Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920 is not likely to scare viewers today as it must have back when it was first released. Yet, that doesn’t diminish the film’s historical importance, and while you won’t be scared while watching the film today, you will also have a fascinating experience. It is so unlike the films that came before it that it is startling. And its techniques have become so ingrained in filmmaking that it has to rank as one of the most important horror films of all time.
The story is justly famous, and has been copied often. Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) comes to a fair with a “Somnambulist”, who he says is “23 years old, and has been sleeping for 23 years.” This is Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who sleeps in a coffin. Caligari says he can any question about the past, and predict anything about the future. And so it seems to be true when the hero of the movie Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), attend the show and Alan asks how long he will live, and Cesare answers “Until dawn”, and sure enough the next morning, Alan is discovered dead in his bed. Suspicious of Caesare, Francis keeps watch all night, and yet somehow the next morning it appears as if Caesare has kidnapped his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover), leading to one of the strangest chase sequences in cinema history.
The plot of the movie is probably a little too pat and predictable for today’s audiences. We aren’t necessarily more sophisticated than audiences in 1920 were, but we certainly have sat through more movies like this than they had. Roger Ebert says a case could be made that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first horror movie ever made, and while I’m sure he’d find many people to disagree with him, what really cannot be argued is that audiences certainly hadn’t seen many if any movies like this before.
The thing that stands out most about the film today is the sets. They are obviously not real, and perhaps even more obviously 2-dimensional. This was odd for the time, but because they could be built cheaply, Wiene could do whatever he wanted with them. Everything in the movie seems to be at odd angles – Wiene shoots much of the movie at these odds angles – but even the “buildings” themselves seem somewhat lopsided, and tilted. That famous chase sequence is the most obvious example of this, as Cesare carries Jane through strange streets and up an even stranger hill. None of it looks real, but it fits in with the hyper-stylization of the film itself. The film is one of (if not) the first example of German Expressionism in film – we would soon see filmmakers like F.W. Murnau take this to even greater extremes in a film like Nosferatu (1922). This marked a departure from what came before, as now filmmakers were not interested in capturing things and locations as how they were, but in creating atmosphere and terror in the audience. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfect example of this – and one that remains influential today. Watch the film today, and it may be impossible for you (like it was for me), not to think of Tim Burton – who uses some of the same principles in his set design as Wiene does (especially in his animated films). And as Roger Ebert correctly pointed out, the film’s camera angles and lighting, would later inspire film noir – in films like The Third Man (1949).
I suspect that most of today’s audiences wouldn’t much like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – just like they wouldn’t like most silent films. Silent films do take a while to get used to – they certainly did for me – and have a different style than the film of today. The require more of a suspension of disbelief, and an audience who will except the exaggerated acting styles, and the technological limitations (for example, the DVD version I saw includes the original tinting of the movie – this isn’t making the film a “color film”, but does give shots and scenes a certain hue – that was meant to create atmosphere). But just because most people are longer interested in a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be. And it doesn’t mean that this isn’t a great film. Yes, you have to look at a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with an historical perspective. But if you’re willing to make the effort, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari offers more rewards than most films of its ilk made today.