Movie Review - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920 - Germany)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a creative masterpiece, truly one of a kind!
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exists in the rarified atmosphere reserved for the handful of films whose influence reaches so far into the fabric of film history and the fine art of visual storytelling that it is difficult—potentially impossible—to write an objective review of the picture based solely on its own merits. In a sense, it—as is the case of most great works of art—is overshadowed by its own fame. And as is always the case when art meets critique, the art wins, as it should.
This does not imply that I cannot write a clear plot synopsis of the story, or give you my own personal opinion of this really great movie—I can do both, and yet ultimately this review will be a reprise of the hundreds, no doubt thousands, of reviews written about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari since it opened in 1920. Note that date and recognize that this movie predates films such as Nosferatu and Metropolis by a significant period, and all were made during a time of very rapid technological advancement in cinematography.
A psycological thriller way ahead of its time
Compared to the hand-cranked cameras and jury-rigged lighting used to shoot Caligari , for example, the equipment utilized on those later movies appears high tech. But the most significant advance in movie making is always in the subtlety and complexity that the script conveys, and the ability of the actors to portray those nuances. By that measure, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari holds up very well, indeed. It’s a shame this movie is most often sighted for its Expressionist flourishes, in other words, because as a piece of storytelling it can stand next to the most complicated psychological thrillers—Hitchcock’s Marnie and Vertigo, Memento, The Usual Suspects, The Prestige .
Watch this amazing movie right now:
"You must become Caligari!"
In addition to all the other ways in which this movie was innovative, it also received what we would now recognize as a stealth marketing campaign. Leading up to its opening, the streets of Berlin were plastered with posters reading, "Du müssen Caligari werden!" ("You must become Caligari!") without any indication that they were referencing a film.
Watch scenes from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:
The plots twists as much as does the set design
The plot twists and turns, beginning with a terrific, ominous opening line—“Spirits surround us on every side. They have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child”—to an ending that manages to be both infinitely surprising, and perfectly logical. The Expressionist visuals for which this film is justifiably famous end up making complete sense, and the seemingly hopelessly snarled plot is solved in one brilliant stroke.
In what world are we wandering?
Added to that are beautiful performances from all the actors, most notably Conrad Veidt (best known for his turn as Major Strasser in 1942’s Casablanca ) as Dr. Caligari’s somnambulistic slave, Cesare. I dare anyone to watch this picture and not be haunted for days by the gaunt, creepy specter Veidt creates from a few brief stage directions. I also dare anyone not to instantly understand where Tim Burton got the inspiration for the lean, angular characters for whom his pictures are so well know: Veidt looks so much like Johnny Depp in Edward Scizzorhands it provides another layer of creepiness.
Due to its use of cutting edge psychology and plot elements utilizing supernatural elements, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often called the first horror film, but I would go further and say that it is the first movie to grasp and exploit the full power of the medium to reach into our innermost fears. Silent films had the unique ability to focus our energy on the visual components of the story—it’s the reason these movies can still entertain and—in the case of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, frighten us. It’s the reason a contemporary homage such as the silent, black and white 2012 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Artist , can reach a vast audience—stripped down to what we can actually see , a story forces as to look more closely.
Throughout The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , we are confronted by a “reality” that is literally twisted and warped: the set design is one of the most spectacular ever attempted in film. It is therefore especially wonderful that the basic premise of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari —that things are not always as they appear—grabs us at the famously unexpected ending.
Cesare awakes--or does he?
Here are a few more classic films from the silent era:
- Movie Review - Asphalt (1929 - Germany)
Asphalt is a little known German silent film from 1929 that features stellar performances from the stars and outstanding cinematography, set design and costumes. It's a visual feast and deserves to be watched much more often!
- Movie Review - Spies (1928 - Germany)
Fritz Lang's 1928 silent classic has been restored and is a real treat for any film lover. One of the first takes on the Evil Mastermind genre, it foreshadows the Bond/spy genre and is a good story taken on its own merits.
- Movie Review - Nosferatu (1922 - Germany)
F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu is a classic horror film from the silent era based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it rises above mere 'classic' status to join the handful of films which are truly 'must see' for anyone who likes great movies!
- Movie Review - Metropolis (1927 Germany)
This beautifully restored and remastered edition of 1927 classic Metropolis let's us see Fritz Lang's vision of the future as he intended us to do, and a scary future it is!
Nightmare? Vision? Reality?
I recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as highly as I can. If you have never seen it, watch it soon. If you have seen it, watch it again, on each viewing you will see another layer and be amazed once again by this most remarkable of pictures.
I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at RobertaLeeArt.com.
Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.
The world of Caligari
Genre: Horror, Art House, International, Mystery, Suspense, Classics, Thriller, Cult Classic
Running Time: 52 min.
Directed By: Robert Wiene
In Theaters: Feb 26, 1920 Wide
On DVD: Oct 15, 1997
Werner Krauss - Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt - Cesare
Friedrich Feher - Francis
Lil Dagover - Jane Olsen
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski - Alan