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Masterpieces of Silent Horror

Updated on January 12, 2015
A still from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"
A still from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" | Source

The era of horror films is believed to begin since late 1890's when Georges Méliès shot The Devil's Castle. Since then, horror became a strong movement in the history of cinema with a number of silent films and then Hollywood monster movies like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) etc. The ability to create and film complex special effects and unrealistic settings gave birth to hundreds of horror films of different quality. However, there are two silent horror films that deserve a special mention for their influence on the heritage of the genre:

  • Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Despite looking somewhat different, these two films bear one common feature - they both represent a brave attempt to depict something that may not belong to this world, something that for centuries has been living only in human imagination, in the darkest fairy tales ever told.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1922)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is by far one of the weirdest films ever made with its unrealistic twisted decorations and wicked mad characters. Decorations are the most striking achievement in this horror story: the painted streets and houses with triangular windows instantly lead us away from reality, into an imagined world of shadows. The design of the architecture does not even look like it was a studio, it is perfectly intertwined with the characters of the film. At some moment viewers gets so fascinated by this artificial labyrinth of doors and windows, that their attention drifts away from the story and suddenly comes back when the first murder is committed; since that moment, they feel as if they are a part of this bizarre and mysterious labyrinth.

The story is set in a fictitious town Holstenwall, where magician under the name Caligari presents Somnambulist Cesare at the town fair. Cesare sleeps in his coffin, but can be awakened by his master, Caligari. After the show, a series of murders take place in the town at night. Francis, the protagonist, decides to reveal the reason behind these murders and follows Caligari into a mental hospital, where the latter appears to be working as a director.

Watch "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" online

"Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1921)

Another German production that came out several years after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this masterpiece suffered a number of misfortunes before the production and after, but several copies nevertheless survived and have been restored.

Unlike Caligari, Nosferatu was filmed on locations including exterior scenes, but it did not make the film less mysterious and scary than its predecessor. On the opposite, Max Schreck's acting as Count Orlok (Nosferatu) is what made the film a legend. The pointed ears, long spear-like nails and sunk eyes that never blink combined with slow movements of the undead creature even now can impress many a viewer. In addition, a number of editing techniques and tricks of cinematography added a great deal of mystery to the narrative of the film.

The story of Nosferatu starts in another fictitious German town, Wisborg, where real estate agency representative Hutter is asked to travel to Transylvania, where Count Orlok lives. As the story unfolds, we realize that Count Orlok is a vampire who wants to buy an abandoned building in Wisborg in order to bring death to the city buy drinking the blood of innocent people. Upon arrival, the Vampire gets fascinated by the young Ellen, Hutter's fiancée. According to the legend, the vampire will perish if a woman pure at heart manages to keep him close until the first cry of a rooster.

It is interesting to note that the musical score for both of the movies has never been recorded, because during the early years of film the only way to sync music with the picture was to play along at screening with a life orchestra. Because of this, a number of copies with different soundtracks composed by various composers exist nowadays.

Time is running fast, films come and go, many of them go to be forever forgotten, but these two masterpieces of German cinema will be remembered by many as an important part of the heritage of the world cinema.

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