Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)
Directed by Robert Wiene
Starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski
Released on February 26, 1920
Running time 1h 11m
Not Rated (Suggested rating: PG for frightening sequences throughout and some violence. Though I would rate it PG, I must stress that this is not a kids’ movie.)
As an up-and-coming horror fan, I knew that I would have to go on a long, perilous journey back to the very beginning, and bear witness of the first full-length horror film, and the forerunner of the German expressionism movement: Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari. While the 1913-14 serial Fantomas was technically the first horror film, it was a ghost story set in a familiar world. This was not the case with Caligari.
Beforehand, I had had little to no fear about what I would experience. How bad can German expressionism be? After I watched Caligari, I cursed myself for not investigating this film earlier. I felt like a much more experienced and knowledgeable horror junkie after watching it.
The best version of this that I could find was a 1996 remastering, so that is what I am reviewing today.
Like Hellraiser, Caligari establishes its atmosphere right off the bat with a fantastic soundtrack by Timothy Brock. (He was only the composer for this remastering.) It sounded very Bernard-Herrman-in-Psycho, as it is entirely made up of a small string ensemble, sounding like two violins, two violas, one or two cellos, and maybe a contrabass, and it is entirely atonal, meaning that it is in no established key. It’s strange, it’s unnerving, and it never stops throughout the film.
We open in a forest, where a young man in his thirties talks to an old man, who claims that spirits have driven him from his family and home. The young man’s name is Francis (Feher), and he one-ups the old man with his story of what he believes to be the strangest experience of his life.
Iris shot transition to a illustration of a town on a steep mountain. Immediately, the atmosphere is given another level of unease, as the drawing of the village looks eerily similar to an exodus of ghostly figures struggling to reach the top of a hill.
And then we are introduced to why this film is so famous: its set design. Its set pieces are warped and twisted, a nervous and upsetting jagged, disorderly landscape of sharp, sudden angles, slanted and lopsided walls and windows, low ceilings and doors, tall chairs and tables, stairways ascending through odd diagonals away into mystery, trees that resemble lightning, bottomless, murkier-than-usual shadows, and lights and shadows painted directly on the sets. This all was done in order to make the viewer believe that he or she is in a nightmare. It is a dark, melancholy, and gloomy idiosyncratic fantastical mindscape, full of delusions, false impressions, and deceptive appearances, eerie, nether fascination, and gaudy sensationalism, using its own theories of knowledge and its own technological restrictions to overpower its audience with incontestably spine-chilling power. While being relentlessly nagging in how disconcerting they are, these visuals are curiously beautiful in their atavistically horrific influence. While films had heretofore made an effort to encapsulate realism onscreen, Caligari not only ditches that method of filmmaking, but behaves like and may as well be averring that it doesn’t exist. It intentionally makes itself exist outside of the realm of reality. It’s actually quite a sight to see. In fact, these visuals are there during the entire film. There is nowhere “safe” from them.
As Francis and his best friend Alan (von Twardowski) good-naturedly compete for the love of Jane (Dagover), a man dressed all in black arrives in the town of Holstenwall. He is somewhat overweight, and has wide, staring, piercing eyes.He goes to the town hall to acquire a permit to present an exhibit at the upcoming town fair, where he plans to present a somnambulist. This man’s name is Dr. Caligari (Krauss). At the first day of the fair, he rings his bell in front of his tent, advertising Cesare (Veidt), the aforementioned somnambulist, who, when awoken, has the ability to see one’s future. That night, the town clerk is found murdered.
I do not care that Werner Krauss was a Nazi sympathizer. I do not care that he starred in several anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda films, however reprehensible that may be. What matters here is Krauss’s performance as Dr. Caligari. In fact, what matters is the performances of all of the actors. The quirk about silent films is that actors were not able to act with their voices. They had to act only with their bodies, faces, and eyes. And in Caligari’s case, the performances are fantastic even now. Krauss plays a deliciously over-the-top mad scientist in the doctor himself. Already, his spasmodic way of walking disconcerts, his odd and unkempt look perturbs, and his wide, wild, manic eyes disturb. I will discuss the other actors later.
Also, the only thing that looks remotely normal about this world is the characters within it. But even then, almost all of them are wide-eyed, pale, skinny, and do not look well grounded in reality.
The next day, Francis and Alan go to the fair, and see Dr. Caligari alongside a group of people. They go into Caligari’s tent, where Caligari pulls back a curtain to reveal a coffin standing up. He opens the doors to reveal a sleeping, unnaturally skinny man dressed in what would eventually become a Morphsuit, and rouses him. And this is the moment that caused women in 1920 to scream and/or faint: the man, named Cesare, opens his eyes. I understand why – it’s a creepy moment. Those dang eyes stare into your soul.
Alan quickly steps up to have Cesare answer his question: “How long do I have to live?” Cesare speaks his only line: “‘til dawn tomorrow.” Alan is initially shocked, but quickly dismisses it as a hoax, laughing it off as he and Francis leave.
That night, when Alan and Francis get to Francis’s house, they encounter Jane, who is pleased to see both of them before she leaves for her own house. As Francis is about to go into his own house, Francis and Alan reaffirm to each other that though they both love Jane, no matter which of them she chooses, they will both remain friends. Great move. That’s one example of how to make likable characters.
But this friendship doesn’t last long, as just before dawn, a shadowy figure comes into Alan’s bedroom and stabs him to death with a knife.
Francis is told of Alan’s death, goes to see his body, and realizes that Cesare’s prophecy came true. After he tells a shocked Jane about it, he goes to the police and asks for police authorization to investigate Dr. Caligari and Cesare.
The first time I watched this movie, my instincts told me that Francis could be using the story about Caligari and Cesare as a method to cover up his murder of Alan in order to have no competition on his way to marrying Jane. But I pushed these instincts back down into my system, as this would not be consistent with Francis as a character.
When night falls, another man – not Cesare – is caught trying to kill an old woman. He is caught, and the police and Francis question him. The would-be murderer confesses to the attempted murder of the old woman, but denies any involvement in the deaths of Alan or the town clerk.
Later that night, Francis secretly spies on Dr. Caligari, and watches as Cesare sleeps in his box. Strangely, Cesare appears at the window of Jane, and he breaks in. This scene also made women faint back in 1920. Stunned by her beauty, he refuses to kill her, instead abducting her and running off. When an angry mob gives chase, Cesare drops Jane, flees, gets a decent distance away, then collapses and dies. The criminal from earlier had been locked away all night, so he is not suspected. Francis and the police barge into Caligari’s shack and pull out the coffin with Cesare in it, only to see that the Cesare in the coffin is only a dummy. Caligari escapes in the confusion, but Francis chases after him to an insane asylum, and upon entering, Francis sees that Caligari is the director of the asylum.
Later, when Caligari is asleep in his villa, Francis and the asylum staff study his records and diary. They tell of an 11th-century mystic named Caligari, who terrorized northern Italian towns by using his somnambulist to commit murders. “Caligari”, obsessed with the real Caligari, goes insane himself, constantly telling himself “Du musst Caligari werden,” which means “You must become Caligari”. He experiments on a somnambulist brought to his asylum, making the somnambulist his very own “Cesare”. Francis and the staff leave the office.
Soon after “Caligari” returns to his office, he is confronted by Francis, the asylum staff, and the police, who show him “Cesare’s” corpse. “Caligari” is shocked at the corpse, and attacks one of the asylum staff. He is restrained, put into a straitjacket, and becomes an inmate in his own asylum. For him and his former patients, I can safely say that it takes an insane man to know another insane man. That was a terrible attempt on my part to say “It takes one to know one”.
We return to the present as Francis finishes telling the old man his story. Francis takes the old man to…you know what, this is a great twist ending. I want to build it up. It comes pretty close to giving The Sixth Sense, Planet of the Apes, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Primal Fear, Sleepaway Camp, Psycho, The Empire Strikes Back, Se7en, Memento, The Others, The Village, Orphan, and Shutter Island runs for their money, if not actually doing so. It is such a damning twist that it even makes the twisted set design make sense. It somehow wraps up every loose end. I was amazed.
The twist is…no. Screw it. I’m not going to spoil it. All I can say is that it is awesome. It actually hurts to see. It is that good. Go watch it for yourself. Here’s a Youtube link, so you won’t have to go out and actually try to find a DVD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ibq_R4POI-w
It’s not a very scary story, but the way it is told combined with its unique German expressionistic visual style makes it a thoroughly harrowing experience.
When this film was remastered in 1996, the people who did so intentionally left the spots and blemishes on the video. Overall, it adds to the atmosphere, and shows that the movie has aged remarkably well through its almost one hundred years of existence.
Even the film being black-and white was changed slightly, as each shot was tinted brown for day, blue for night, and purple for one shot inside Jane’s house.
The acting and writing behind all of it is fantastic. Francis is clearly scared but determined to see justice done. Jane’s innocence holds strong. Alan inspires a cracked smile with his more casual attitude. The imposing “Cesare” still terrifies with his almost voodoo-zombie-like movements and actions. But “Caligari” easily steals the show.
But this film surprised me the most by doing this single, solitary thing among all of the disturbing beauty. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari scared me. But it didn’t do just that. In fact, just like Hellraiser, it actually disturbed me.
What makes this film so scary for me is the constant, persistent feeling that something is wrong. It is just unsettling enough to continually be on my mind. It is a nagging, nauseating feeling (in a good way) that still scares me every time I watch it. It is one of the most terrifying films I have ever seen. Its outlook on horror in general is remarkably unique. It did just enough to put me out of my comfort zone and actually start to make me feel uneasy, then actually kind of creeped out, to actually scared. I may not have lost sleep that night when I first watched it, but it certainly stuck with me for a long while.
I felt physically affected, ill, and buffeted about by its ever-twisting, ever-adjusting, ever-mentally-scarring story-backed imagery.
This film introduced me into the strange and wondrous land of German expressionist films, where the story, characters, and world discard all notions of reality, filling themselves with wrong angles and lost values. It is one of few genres that have and will continue to stand the test of time.
And if films like Der Golem, Metropolis, M, and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens are anything like Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, I’m in for a treat.
It was also quite nice to know that Robert Wiene (the director) and Conrad Veidt (Cesare) successfully moved on to more good movies. I can’t say the same for Werner Krauss, as the majority of his career after Caligari was spent making Nazi propaganda films. Wiene and Veidt worked together on The Hands of Orlac, and Veidt moved on to The Man Who Laughs, The Thief of Bagdad, and Casablanca, and even starred in two responses to Nazi anti-Semitic films, The Eternal Jew and Jew Suss.
Good job, Herr Wiene and Herr Veidt. Glad I could see what you two do best. Caligari was a wonderful, scary film that I will definitely show to my friends.
Thanks for making it.
Final verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.