Film buffs are one of the few groups of people who have extremely positive associations with the words “Weimar Republic”. The German film industry had an embarrassment of talent and explosive creativity in the 1920s. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of a number of innovative German movies of the era that profoundly influenced whole swaths of 20th century film worldwide: .
It’s a story within a story, told by a man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) after he sees “his betrothed” walk by in a daze. They have shared an amazing experience he says, and then the film transitions to his bizarre tale of a carnival sideshow that features a fortune-telling somnambulist. The sideshow is operated by the mysterious Dr. Caligari (a magnetic Werner Krauss) who seems to have control over the sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The creepy Cesare blandly informs a carnival patron that he will die at dawn, and the prediction comes true! It’s one of a series of murders that have been terrorizing the countryside. But who is the killer, and what will happen to the fetching damsel in distress (Lil Dagover) whom Francis and his friendly rival Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are trying to woo? Strap yourself in for cinema’s first horror film AND the first film with a twist ending (and what a twist!).
Made by Robert Wiene in 1919 or 1920 (depending on which film guide you believe), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains one of the most visually striking films in history. Expressionist artists Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig and Walter Reimann produced a set design to die for, with light and shadows physically painted onto the walls and floors, twisted furnishings, canted windows and doors, and chiaroscuro galore. It’s a madman’s dreamscape, a physical expression of a warped psychology. Many of the actors move in a stylized way (Caligari recalls a scuttling spider, Cesare a cross between a mod dancer and the Frankenstein monster), further heightening the atmosphere of unreality. And it all would have looked even more mesmerizing at the time because the film was tinted rather than being in pure black and white.
Like the best art of this type, the unreality expresses a greater reality. Every one who has been in some bureaucratic backwater office to complete arcane paperwork under the oversight of an imbecile sees the truth in the design of the town clerk’s office in this movie. The cell at the police station conveys the complete desolation of the wrongly accused. And we have all met leaders of organisations whose personality and outlook are completely captured in the interior of the insane asylum director’s office.
The most memorable performance in the film is Conrad Veidt’s turn as the somnambulist Cesare. The scene in which he first awakes is a master class in non-verbal expression. It’s easy to see why he was a star of the silent cinema. He went on to star in the legendary American silent The Man Who Laughs, where as a character with his face physically carved in a permanent smile, he inspired the creators of Batman to invent the Joker. After Veidt fled the Nazis (He was a passionate anti-Fascist and had a Jewish wife) he settled in Hollywood and appeared in some hugely entertaining films, including Casablanca, Contraband, and — a lesser picture than those classics but still a pleasure — All Through the Night.
With many silent films, watching them feels like the solemn duty of the earnest cineaste, i.e., You ought to watch this historically important work of art because it will be good for you to understand the origins of the medium. Yawn. But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari arrests the eye and haunts the dreams even of modern viewers. It’s a scary, stunning treat.
Closing note: This film is in the public domain, so you can no doubt find it on line for free, but beware chopped up versions. I have seen the length of this film quoted as anywhere from 51 to 82 minutes; I am fairly sure both extremes are untrue. I have it on DVD from a defunct classic film provider, and I think it’s a complete version at about 70 minutes. In any event, as a viewer you should aim for the longest cut you can find so that you don’t miss a moment of this classic piece of cinema.