[Digging Up the Dead] 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' Stands as an Expressionist Masterpiece

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often regarded as the perfect example of German Expressionist cinema and is arguably the first horror film. While an average moviegoer may never dive into the deep history of cinema or seek out ancient classics, this 1920 movie is still remarkable and well worth any horror fans’ time, provided they can find an adequate copy.

The movie is told in flashback as Francis describes the ordeal he and his fiancé had to go through. Francis lived in the town of Holstenwall, and both he and his best friend Alan were seeking to woo Jane, the woman who would become his fiancé. One day a fair comes to town and it features a hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, and his somnambulist, Cesare. While the townsfolk flock to the fair in droves, mysterious murders start to happen at night. Caligari seems disagreeable, as we see from his interactions with local authorities, and his show is terrifying as Cesare’s predictions for the future foretells the death of Alan, which does come to pass. Francis, distraught over the death of Alan, and remembering Cesare’s prediction, engages the local authorities and Jane’s father to investigate Caligari. However, Caligari has no intentions of confessing or stopping, and he sends Cesare after Jane, setting the stage for the film’s twisting climax.

The plot and storytelling of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is quite brilliant, from both a world history perspective and a cinema history perspective, even though the two perspectives clash. The film was written in the wake of World War One and has a decidedly anti-authoritarian message that is depicted by having a madman with power, Dr. Caligari, perpetually abuse that power. So, allegorically, it’s an important historical work that explores some of the post war sentiment in Germany. However, that message is tempered by the added frame story, that is by the opening sequence that sets up the flashback and then the twist ending. There is a matter of some debate whether the frame story was intentional from the start, but it is certainly true that the writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, were deeply opposed to the twist ending, which was added by the director, as they felt it robbed the movie of its political significance. What is important though is that this is the earliest notable use of a twist ending, and that technique would go on to become a popular trope of the horror genre.

The film was directed by Robert Wiene, and the stunning art direction of the film is still impressive now, a hundred years on. Like a lot of early films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari utilizes sets, but these sets are so unique that they create an otherworldly aesthetic that is simply stunning. Sharp points, odd angles, crooked lines, size distortion, and asymmetry all combine to create a world at once distinct from our own but strangely similar, like looking at a distorted reflection. Additionally, shadows and streaks of light are depicted by them being physically painted on to the sets, which enhances the otherworldly feeling while giving the film a deeper feeling of visual depth than is actually there. Also, while the movie was filmed in black and white, as color film had not yet been invented, color filters are used to enhance the mood, setting, and the time of day. The filters are a significant feature of the film, and if you are looking to watch it and the version you are watching doesn’t have them, go find a version that does, because you lose important visual and emotional elements of the film if the filters are not applied.

Acting in silent films is definitely a different creature than other types of acting, but the performances in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are quite impressive. Werner Krauss plays the titular Dr. Caligari, and I love his performance. Caligari is a man who craves respect and power, and when respect is denied him, he will use his power to achieve it. However, he is also a performer, and Krauss combines these aspects spectacularly to create a charismatic, yet frightening antagonist who dominates every scene he is in. Cesare, the puppet of Caligari and his instrument for murder, is played by Conrad Veidt, and while it is a more subtle roll, he does a good job with it. As Cesare is a somnambulist, he goes through life sleepwalking, and this keeps him in a state that Caligari can manipulate. Veidt does a great job of carrying himself in a way that makes it look like he is sleepwalking and not fully aware of himself, and when his few moments of full expression happen, they are dramatic and impactful. Friedrich Feher takes on the role of Francis, and he delivers a solid performance full of emotion. Francis runs the emotional gamut in this movie, and it is up to Feher to depict every one of them with just his facial expressions and mannerisms, and he rises to the occasion by delivering a performance that, while not as dominating or intriguing as Caligari and Cesare, feels wholly realistic. The last principle is Jane, played by Lil Dagover, and while her role isn’t as complex as some of the others, she does a good job with it, particularly when it comes to portraying distress, terror, and the subsequence mentally damaged state brought about by them.

Newer is not always better, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a testament to that as it is over a hundred years old but still holds up as one hell of horror film. If you’re in the mood for a truly strange cinematic experience that is as visually enchanting as it is unsettling, then I highly recommend finding a quality copy of this movie and giving it watch.


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