An early foray into cinematic horror, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) features some of the most wildly distorted sets the movies have ever seen. A touchstone of German Expressionist cinema, the film largely ignores naturalism of any kind in its settings, instead creating its own looming, jagged world in which terrible events transpire. The story revolves around a series of mysterious murders that occur shortly after a fair comes to town. A featured spectacle at the fair is the cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which houses Cesare, a young man who is almost permanently asleep and can supposedly divine the future. Soon suspicion swirls that Dr. Caligari is responsible for the murders, but proof is elusive. (75 min.)
S. – A bizarre landscape populated by strange and exaggerated characters, there is a pantomime feel to this movie. Even the intertitles are written in a distorted hand. The aesthetic strongly reminded me of a Tim Burton film, particularly the character of the sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who must have been a precursor to Edward Scissorhands. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had a storybook feel to me, I’m not sure how to describe it precisely but it was missing the depth of a movie.
J. – It is a very superficial movie, and I say that not just with regard to the story and characters but the actual look of the film, which was almost literally two-dimensional. The sets were really remarkable, boldly distorted and aggressively unreal. The way rooms were stretched and flattened, and window frames bent and contorted was a very courageous choice on the part of director Robert Weine (and also probably a really effective way to make a movie for very little money). But I have to believe that those sets and the fact that the movie is so old are really what earned its place on the list. It may have been a shocking movie in its day, but the story really didn’t do much for me and it certainly didn’t spook me any (and I’m a horror movie wimp).
S. – Visually the film makes a big impact. The super high contrast and the distorted landscapes were brilliant and I suspect it was the innovative representation of this world that was responsible for Dr. Caligari making the list. However, I was rather surprised that there wasn’t more meat to the story, the plot elements were there to make it something really striking but it never got off the ground. The characters just did not come to life for me. This was a real missed opportunity particularly with Cesare, who had the potential to either invoke terror or sympathy in his catatonic state but managed only to be slightly kooky.
J. – I completely agree. I do like that the film made a go at a twist ending, and it is a pretty good one that (almost) explains the crazy sets and odd narrative — that final shot of the hallway should have been naturalistic for it to all fit together. There are tons of visual elements that clearly ended up being emulated in many subsequent films. And it was presumably one of the first ever horror movies. For all of these reasons, particularly the wonderful sets and the interesting use of animation in the scene with Caligari freaking out outside the asylum (see image below), I am really glad I saw the movie. But beyond the visceral thrill of the wild visuals, most of my interest was purely academic or historical.
It’s absolutely not fair to say of any silent film that it hasn’t aged well, but I can’t help but feel that is an appropriate summation of this movie. It is remarkable how much closer this film is in feel and sophistication to A Trip to the Moon, which came out in the infancy of narrative cinema (and 18 years before Dr. Caligari), than it is to films like Battleship Potemkin or Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, which would follow Caligari by just a couple of years.
Also, on a completely separate note (no pun intended), the score on the version we watched drove me up the wall. The electric guitar/saxophone free jazz noodling on the Kino DVD is clearly meant to reflect the fractured, eerie feel of the movie, but I found it really distracting and often tonally disparate from the events on screen. I was tempted to hit the mute button. This film deserves better.
S. – Before I started on the Sight & Sound quest this movie is pretty much the standard I expected from a silent film: a little weird, somewhat confusing and not very engaging. The last few weeks have opened my eyes to just how fantastic and powerful a silent film can be, so I was disappointed with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It looks fantastic but it could have been so much more.
You and I have talked about the recurring theme of madness in German films of this era. I am curious as to whether it is merely a convenient plot device or a reflection of the social turmoil going on in the country at the time. Perhaps Cesare was meant to represent the cold, cruel foot soldier of an evil puppet-master, an attempt by a troubled mind to make sense of an emerging horror. Or maybe I just really want there to be something more to this.
J. – I also found it surprising that all four of the German films that we have written about to date deal quite literally with insanity. I don’t think Dr. Caligari can be viewed through the lens of the incipient turmoil of Nazism; it’s too early a film for that to be the case. But these themes of madness and distortion that rise up again and again must be tied to the interwar trauma of Germany: devastated in one war, wracked by economic ruin, and then galvanizing around a terrible new force that would destroy the country once again. It’s hard to imagine that the social, political, and economic realities of Weimar Germany would not be incorporated into that republic’s greatest films; so no, I don’t think it is just us wanting something more out of Dr. Caligari. I am very curious to see whether these themes reappear when we start viewing the works of prominent early German filmmaker F.W. Murnau. [Update: yes, yes they do – J.]