When people talk about horror or silent movies, the 1920 German expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inevitably comes up. There’s been a lot said about it (Movies Silently and Silent-ology are two excellent examples), which I don’t feel like I can add much to, but I will say this: Even people who don’t normally like silent films often like Caligari because it’s just that good.
The movie came at a time in Germany when everything felt off. Really, really off. The country had been put through the wringer at the Treaty of Versailles, many would say too much so, and the German economy was in shambles. The mark devalued so severely that in 1923 it could be worth less in the afternoon than it was in the morning. Morality was also rather loose during the decade, as it was in many places during the 1920s.
Germans channeled their frustrations into crafting incredibly creative films, which, according to Britannica, very often explored hidden realities. This was the environment that Caligari was born out of.
The plot is very simple. A young man Franzis (Fredrich Feher) tells an older one about what sad circumstances brought him to where he is, and just as he gets going on the story, a woman in white wafts by. She’s completely otherworldly and distant, except for the few seconds she has to brush some branches out of her face.
Pressing on with his tale, Franzis tells of a carnival in his hometown of Holstenwall. A mysterious stranger calling himself Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) registers an act with the town council, and the only descriptor he’ll give is “Somnabulism!”
The next day at the fair, Dr. Caligari draws quite a crowd with Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a young man who has supposedly been asleep for most of his twenty-three years. Cesare can tell the future and he’s always right.
Lo and behold, certain townspeople turn up dead, and that means a mystery to solve. Franzis is concerned about protecting Jane (Lil Dagover) the woman he loves, and the police want to find out who Dr. Caligari really is. There’s strong evidence that the doctor might not be all there.
I could say more, but it’s best to let this film unfold.
Why is Dr. Caligari worth watching? Here are a few of my reasons:
It’s a great story.
A wild-eyed doctor and a fortune-telling sleepwalker. Two idealistic young men who are in love with the same woman. Mysterious murders. An asylum filled to the brim with characters. A plot that twists and turns and teases. What’s not to love?
After a while, it’s easy to forget that it’s a silent film.
The lack of audible dialogue becomes merely a footnote because we’re too busy wanting to know what happens next. Running at seventy-five minutes, the movie so well-paced it zooms by. I’ve seen Caligari three times so far, and it always captures me.
The sets look really cool.
The film has a look that Tim Burton would be content with and probably jealous of, which is why he’s worked elements of Caligari into his own films. Everything but the staircases is off-kilter, even the windows. It’s amazing anything functions in this movie, because it all looks like it’s sinking into the ground. Even the lights and shadows are skewed. The only place that has straight lines is Jane’s living room, which likely symbolizes her moral purity.
It messes with your head.
From the beginning, the advertisers tried to emphasize Caligari‘s vicarity. The story wants viewers to be unsure of themselves while watching the film. Maybe it’s the wonky sets, or maybe it’s the fact that everyone’s eyes look sick and sunken to varying degrees. Maybe it’s the gradual revealing of particulars about the characters, or what the film chooses not to reveal. In any case, Caligari quietly lures viewers into questioning what they think they know about its world.
It’s easily accessible in beautiful 4K.
This is such a “Well, duh,” thing, but I’ll say it anyway. Sure, there are bootlegs floating around on YouTube, but many of them look atrocious, and they may not have the whole film, so of course a restored print is totally worth it.
Yeah, in case it isn’t completely obvious, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of my favorite silent movies so far, and I’m not even a big horror fan. If anyone hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend it, and I hope whoever sees it for the first time enjoys it. Or whoever revisits it. Whatever. It’s fun.
My entry for the Suave Swordsman Blogathon is on the way Sunday. Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a great weekend…