Often cited as the world’s first true horror film, this German
classic from 1920 has taken on near-legendary status among cultists, and
retains a loopy aura that has yet to be matched.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (DAS CABINET DES DR.
CALIGARI) was directed by Robert Wiene and starred Conrad Veidt. Both
would go on to important careers in horror/fantasy cinema, with Wiene
helming such classics as
GENUINE (1920) and THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1924). Veidt was
already one of the premiere horror performers of the silent era when
CALIGARI was made, having appeared in films like FEAR, MADNESS and
UNCANNY STORIES (all apparently lost). He’d go on to lend his presence
to Paul Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS in 1927, but his career, like those of
many other silent movie stars, didn’t survive the coming of sound.
THE CABINET OF THE DR. CALIGARI remains one of the most
representative works of the German expressionist movement, which opposed
traditional naturalism through distortion and convergence in its
depiction of spiritual unrest. The film’s influence can be seen in
everything from the film noirs of the 1940s to ERASERHEAD and SHUTTER
ISLAND (even if you’ve never actually seen CALIGARI you’ll probably
recognize its visual design). It was remade several times, most notably
as the 1989 cult item DR. CALIGARI and a 2005 American-made feature with
modern actors situated amid backgrounds scanned directly from those of
the original film.
One day in a courtyard two apparent strangers start up
a conversation. Inspired by a woman who walks by them in a trance-like
state, one of the men recounts some particularly bizarre and macabre
It all begins at a traveling carnival, where a freaky
somnambulist who dubs himself Dr. Caligari has set up a tent. His
attraction is Cesare, who Caligari puts into a trance. In this state
Cesare claims he can predict the future. At night Cesare sleeps in a
coffin by Dr. Caligari’s side, as the latter has seemingly put Cesare
into a permanent state of somnambulism.
A series of suspicious killings rock the town. The
protagonist, who’s witnessed Caligari’s circus act, spends the night
peering through the window of the cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the
sleeping Cesare. Another murder occurs that night, but the perpetrator
can’t possibly be Cesare--or can it?
The next morning the protagonist inspects the cabinet
of Dr. Caligari, and finds that the sleeping figure seen the previous
night is actually a dummy. The real Cesare has run off with the
protagonists’ girlfriend, and Dr. Caligari has disappeared.
But there’s another, hitherto unimportant figure who
now comes to the fore: the director of a local insane asylum, whose
diaries reveal a lifelong obsession with the 11th Century
legend of a demented somnambulist named Caligari. It seems the man grew
so obsessed with the tale he actually decided he is Caligari.
But there’s still another twist in store, one that
nobody could have possibly foreseen...
For the record, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is not the
“first” horror movie, although it can be credited with introducing the
twist ending. The twist in question justifies the film’s wildly skewed
set design, intended as an externalization of the workings of an unquiet
mind as much as an artistic conceit.
There are many mind-bending sights on display,
including the tilted merry-go-round, the shadow killings and the visual
manifestations of the insane asylum director’s madness, depicted by
having the word “CALIGARI” appearing several times in lurid animation.
There’s never been another movie quite like THE CABINET
OF DR. CALIGARI, even though countless others have tried to imitate it.
A large part of the film’s effectiveness is due to the simple fact that
it’s silent, which allows the filmmakers a degree of latitude in their
creation of a hallucinatory dream world that wouldn’t be possible in a
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
Director: Robert Wiene
Producers: Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Cinematography: Willy Hameister
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans
Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger