Based upon an informal poll on my Twitter, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are enough people who have not seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to make this one of my recommendations. Because not only is it an essential work of cinema, a historically significant film that influenced the development of horror, film noir, and psychological thrillers, but it’s also a great work of entertainment and a perfect silent film for those folks who might be wary of watching films that are now almost a hundred years old.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with a frame story in which Francis (Friedrich Feher) recounts the ordeal of himself and his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) at the hands of the diabolical Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). Caligari is a traveling showman who arrives in the village of Holstenwall with a new spectacle: the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who can predict the future. But as soon as Caligari arrives in town, strange things start happening, like the murder of a town clerk who initially refused Caligari a permit. Francis, Jane, and their friend Alan go see the exhibit, where Cesare predicts Alan’s death. When Alan dies later that night, Francis believes that it’s Cesare, acting under the control of Dr. Caligari, and sets out to prove it.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often held up as the purest form of cinematic German Expressionism, a style so popular in Weimar cinema that one would almost expect every German film of the period to show its influence. Definitions of Expressionism very often fall short until you’ve seen the films themselves; they are tinged with the Gothic and the Romantic as well as the psychological, blending visuals with the internal experiences of the characters to render them externally. The sets of Caligari are twisted and theatrical labyrinths constructed to appear like dreams or hallucinations; the “real world” of Holstenwall is all sharp angles, streets that curve into nowhere, uneven sidewalks, and undersized rooms, producing a sense of distortion to reflect the increasing madness of the events. The physicality of the actors, especially Krauss and Veidt, melds with the environment, as they twist their bodies and move to ape their surroundings. The horror here is contained in personal perception made external; Caligari’s victimization of Cesare, Alan, Francis, and Jane cannot be traced back to him because his dominance is within the subconscious. And the film depicts that, as Caligari moves within a world constructed just for him.
Horror cinema as we know it owes a huge debt to Caligari – the monsters of Universal and their subsequent spinoffs don’t exist without the psychological terror Caligari accomplishes through image alone. It’s an excellent introduction to this period of silent cinema and to German expressionism, keeping attention by providing a strong narrative thrust and avoiding some of the more common pitfalls of silent film. The extreme acting styles are fascinating to watch and result in haunting performances—anyone who has seen Conrad Veidt only as the sneering villain of Casablanca should take a look at Caligari. It’s also a magnificent piece of entertainment, a gorgeous rendering of a horror narrative that never strays into cliché and is still as frightening as it was when it was made.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available to stream on Kanopy and YouTube*.
*Note: there are multiple versions of Caligari on YouTube, of varying quality. I suggest watching via Kanopy, which has the properly restored version from Kino Lorber.