The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

If you ask the common movie fan what they know of the Silent Movie genre, you often get the same type of answer.  They will usually reference the comedic actors of the period such as Buster Keeton and Charlie Chaplin.  However, many film fans will tell you that the Silent Movie genre offered up hundreds of films that dealt with everything from tragedy to comedy. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films to  introduce viewers to the Horror genre.

Having been produced in Germany during the early years of the Silent Movie genre;  the stars are unknown by many modern film viewers. But if there is one star whose name has withstood the test of time it would be actress, Lil Dagover. Her career spanned over 50 years and is well known to fans of German films and television.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with two men sitting on a bench sharing a little life philosophy.  One of the men, Francis, begins to tell the other about the death of his friend Alan.  We are then treated to a flashback type of story were the events of Francis’ story unwind.

We are introduced to Dr. Caligari, a man who wishes to enter the town’s festival with his act.  The star of Dr. Caligari’s act is a somnambulist (sleepwalker), who has been asleep most of  his 23 years of life.  However, when the somnambulist, Cesare, awakes he is able to answer any questions much like a psychic.  Caligari goes about getting the proper documents to enter his act into the town’s festival and begins to scout the festival to find a location to setup his tent.  Meanwhile, we find Francis and his friend Alan looking for something to do in town when they decide to head out to the festival.  They eventually end up in Dr. Caligari’s tent and when Alan asks Cesare a simple question, dread strikes Alan as he is told he only has till dawn to live.

Thus the horror of the story comes into to play;  Alan is found dead the next morning having been murdered in the night.  Alan is not the first to have died in a mysterious manner and it appears the small town has a killer living among them.  Francis leads an investigation with his betrothed, Jane, in order to expose the killer.

What made this film unique for its period are the set pieces and designs used.  The creepy backdrops and sets are like those you would find on the set of a Tim Burton film.  Warped and oblong pieces that give a shadow of foreboding and dread.  The film makers also used lighting to help accent the periods of dread in the film, and at the same time brighten the mood when needed.  As words cannot be used to convey what is going without breaking a scene with a cue card with the appropriate wording the actors had to sell the emotions.  So it’s not to shocking that some will see the acting as over the top at moments while viewing a film such as this.

What really makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stick out is the way the plot moves and how the story unfolds.  The amazing factor of this film would have to be the twist at the end of the film.  It is much like something you would find in modern Hollywood films, even as recent as a 2010 Martin Scorsese blockbuster. In all aspects of the film, the only thing missing is the dialogue, but if you can get past that you will find a great classic Horror film.

4 thoughts on “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

  1. I see this one listed on the streaming video sites all the time. It has always seemed interesting, but I just haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. So anyone wanting to see it for free may want to do a search for it on streaming video sites such as Hulu.com or YouTube Movies.

    The strange thing is how unlike many of the movies of the middle 20th Century (around 1950s through 70s), the sets in the silent films seemed more well detailed and mesmerizing in that they seemed more realistic, particularly in the horror films. I guess when there wasn’t sound to work with and other such effects that came into film later, more concentration went to the visual set design than it would later. Which is something that I feel movie producers should be careful for when a new method or technique in film production comes in. E.G. When CGI came out it made a lot of improvements in the realism of the film but audiences were so amused with it that film makers started depending on the CGI technique alone to a point where they would neglect certain details such as the effect of the volume and therefore the solidity of a figure. For example, a dinasaur in CGI would perhaps have textual detail to the last pore, yet its movement would come accross as to fluidic. But the film producer who can use the new technique, such as CGI, and yet keep in balance all other aspects of the movie such as the motion of figures is the one who truly innovates such a teqnique.

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  2. Steven,
    I have to agree about the sets of the silent era. Film makers of that period understood that they had to sell the story using what was available. Since they could not use words it was reliant on the set pieces, and what some call, over acting, to sell the story. Facial expressions and mannerisms were key to these films.

    I believe that is what makes some of the early Horror Films so unique. It was left up to your imagination or a shadow to get an idea of what could be happening unseen.

    New directors and movies often do get caught up in the way they can make a set or piece look with the help of CGI and that is one thing I find different from the silent era. I believe that era, at times, did a better job of not only telling a story but combining it with a great back drop. In some movies today a story is the b-actor in the film compared to some of the CGI back drops and sets.

    I hope you take a chance to check the film out now that you read the review. If you do be sure to share what you think of it.

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  3. Great review,
    Good point in referencing “Shutter Island”. Supposedly Scorsese was shocked to find out that Dennis Lehane hadn’t seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, since the plots are so similar, and the twist ending is spot-on.
    David

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