The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


  • directed by Robert Wiene
  • starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover
  • Francis recalls in his memory the horrible experiences he and his fiancée Jane recently went through with Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist, Cesare, and his deadly predictions.

“Spirits surround us on every side”

I would classify this film as more of a cerebral crime drama with supernatural elements than something to send you jumping out of your seat, but what it lacked in scares it made up for in an entire movie’s worth of creepy, unsettling visuals. Let’s put it this way…if I woke up in the middle of the night to investigate a noise and discovered it was only this movie unexplainably playing in my living room, it would be the most terrifying movie ever possible. Maybe any movie would claim that title in such a situation, especially one from 1920, but whatever, there’s a point there.

I really wish I could have gotten the chance to watch this before modern day Hollywood came up with the idea of “twist ending whenever possible” because it rendered what was for the time an impressively complex plot very predictable. But that alone makes you think. It was almost a century ago that these writers and filmmaker introduced the concept of creating a movie that was derived solely from the main character’s altered psychological state, yet we still see that twist all the time. It was obviously an influential effort. Just off the top of my head in the visuals I saw the future styles of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, and in the story there were pieces of M. Night Shyamalan, Zack Snyder, and Christopher Nolan. There are probably many other “auteurs” out there that have taken a piece of Caligari as their own over the years. Burton has acknowledged that the look of his Edward Scissorhands character was a direct take on Cesare the somnamubulist in this film and you can really see that particular comparison.

The film visually had the feel of a stage performance, with the action happening in front of sharp angular, almost prism-like painted set pieces. This was perhaps the most obvious visual example to provide somebody of the expressionist style of cinema that would continue to mature in the works of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau in the 1920s and, though it ended as a formal German movement in the early ’30s, its influence was clearly seen down the road with James Whale in the ’30s, and Orson Welles and Carol Reed in the ’40s, not to mention to this day.

There was also one legitimately scary scene. When Cesare is slowly creeping up on a sleeping Jane, we don’t yet know what level of violence he is capable of and the horror level heightens with the ensuing abduction and then the off-balance chase scene through the winding and tilting landscape. Anyway, it was a gorgeous looking film, everything you’d think the spirit of Halloween to be but don’t quite realize why, and coupled with the constant dissonant, tension-building score, it is the perfect choice to have on in the background of any Halloween party.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

  1. Pingback: #PayClassicsForward Challenge – Prince of Hollywood

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