Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer
Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veldt as Cesare
Friedrich Feher as Friedrich Feher
Lil Dagover as Jane Olsen
Hans Heinrich as Hans Heinrich
When watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time, I did not expect to be entertained. I expected to find roots for the horror films that I would come to know and cherish. I expected to be intrigued by film conventions of the silent era and appreciate the film within this context. Yet, I was delighted and surprised to be thoroughly caught up in the story and blown away by the ending.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the precedent setter to which all horror film directors are indebted. Although an early contribution, it was technically not the first horror film. Le Manoir Du Diable aka The Devil’s Castle (1897), a ten minute short, predates it by over twenty years. Yet, Le Manoir’s contribution to the genre is slight as it just reproduces traditional gothic imagery. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911) was the first feature-length horror film, but it was only a retelling of the classic Victor Hugo story, without any scares, suspense, or disturbing imagery. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, on the other hand, laid the groundwork for onscreen depictions of violence, dark and twisted plot lines, creepy themes and disturbing endings. Once more, aside from introducing THE critical elements of the genre, Robert Wiene’s masterpiece maintains a story that has yet to be duplicated in its ability to perplex and even shock the audience.
The film opens with Friedrich sitting with an unnamed companion. Upon seeing his betrothed, Jane Olsen, wandering as though in a daze, he recounts the tale of Dr. Caligari to his companion. The flashback takes the audience back to Dr. Caligari’s arrival to a town in the Bavarian Alps with a traveling fair. After obtaining a permit from the ornery town clerk, who is murdered that same night, Dr. Caligari dazzles his audience with a somnambulist (sleepwalking) performance. Friedrich and his friend Hans are in attendance, as Dr. Caligari opens a ‘cabinet’ the height of a human and reveals the sleeping Cesare to them. At Dr. Caligari’s command, Cesare opens his eyes and begins to prophesize. He predicts Hans will die soon. That night Hans is murdered. The town suspects Cesare is involved, or that Dr. Caligari may be controlling the murders. The next night an attack on an old woman is foiled and the assailant is caught.
The film slowly engrosses the audience and drags them to a pinnacle of two interdependent climaxes. Among the more sensational scenes are a violent struggle between Jane and her kidnapper and the murder of Hans (depicted through the shadows of victim and assailant). One of the initial turnoffs is that the entire movie is shot on a rather sparse stage with abstract symbolism. Yet, if you hang in there, the obtuse and narrowing angles of the rooms begin to seem appropriate, given the jaded nature of the storyline. Many of them give the impression of collapsing in on the characters and allow opportunities for impressive shadow work – maintaining the creepy atmosphere. Similarly, the camera frames, although initially square for action and crowd shots, then circular for close-ups, become more erratic and unpredictable as the film draws to its conclusion. Not until the end, does a confused audience appreciate how integral this change up is to the storyline.
Beyond the visuals, this is the first film to utilize psychological horror – where the plot itself becomes more terrifying than the depictions and inferences of violence. From the 1931 release of Dracula, to the Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, the influence of this film cannot be understated, nor can the reverberatingly disturbing nature of its storyline.
Warning: This is a silent movie: A silent movie of GENIUS, but a silent movie nonetheless. As is typical for silent films, the music is unoriginal and overly dramatic. It’s debatable whether you would want to leave it muted, as it does not add much to your viewing pleasure.