• Director: Robert Wiene
  • Writers: Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz
  • Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Freidrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, and Rudolf Lettinger
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla and Kanopy (library apps), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi, stream with subscription on AMC Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Some have called Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) the “first true horror movie,” though this title seems more honorary than real. It is, however, genuinely scary, even today (similar to its semi-contemporary in Weimar era silent horror, Nosferatu), and also has some of the most interesting, weird visuals in the history of the movies. I have talked a few times on this site about “German Expressionism,” one of those cinematic movements you’ll often hear directors mention as an influence even today. If you want to know what German Expressionism looks like, this is it at its most extreme.  The sets are wild and jagged, seen from strange perspectives. Many of the backgrounds are just painted and hung behind the characters. Everything about the movie is stylized, down to the crazy font on the title cards. This is a movie that takes place, not in reality, but in the dream of an unhappy person.

Some silent movies are easy to follow, but I found that I had to pay close attention to Caligari in order to have the faintest idea what was going on. It is a serial killer story, about an insane hypnotist (Werner Krauss), who hypnotizes a “somnambulist” (Conrad Veidt) to commit the murders. The heroe are two friends, Francis (Freidrich Fehér) and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), who both like the same girl, Jane (Lil Dagover), and have decided to compete for her hand. Of course, the damsel Jane soon becomes a target of the killer. Interestingly, the movie has a Shyamalan-esque twist ending that was apparent forced on the filmmakers, over their strenuous protests, by the producers, in which the whole movie has been the imaginings of inmates in an insane asylum. This perhaps operates to explain the dreamy craziness. I agree the movie doesn’t need it, but it doesn’t ruin things any more than the weird, explanatory ending of Psycho ruins that movie.

It is very easy to see how many have interpreted Caligari very much in the context of its environment as part of Germany at the time. It was made only two years after German’s defeat in World War I, under the Weimar government. It is thought to be a metaphor for the German what the filmmakers thought about the German character, with its sleepwalker blindly obeying a corrupt, evil authority figure into oblivion. Perhaps they had the German experience in World War I in mind, but many have since commented that they found the film prescient in terms of the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

I have said “the filmmakers” because, despite its unique qualities, Caligari is not usually thought of as the work of a single visionary. Its most vocal proponents were its two writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, two penniless, pacifist authors with no prior relationship whatsoever to the nascent German film industry. They were able to get a pitch meeting with the head of a studio, but then refused to give him the script to read, instead reading it out loud to him in one session. Surprisingly, he loved it and bought the script on the spot. The movie was directed by Robert Wiene, who is known almost exclusively today for this one film, though he made several other domestically successful films after this. Neither the writers nor the director seem to have anticipated the level of abstraction that the designers ended up bringing to the movie’s sets, though they fully embraced the idea once they saw it.

At a time when many American silent films often consisted entirely of medium shots of actors in rooms, Caligari’s crazy artsiness played as a revelation. The movie was successful both domestically and internationally, and has also been called the “first cult film.” Consider the scenes of the killer, Jane slung over his back, fleeing desperately over asymmetrical rooftops. German Expressionism may seem alien to us today, but it is in fact thought to have heavy influences on many future movies, and film noir is sometimes said to be its direct descendant. Both genres tend to have darker themes and place an emphasis on strong visual contrasts between shadows and light. Despite the seemingly unique visual style of this movie, it is easy to draw a line from the visuals here to those of, say, The Third Man.

Few films are as exemplary of Expressionism as Caligari, but many elements can be found in other movies of the time. Nosferatu, Der Letzte Mann, Metropolis, and M (all directed by Fritz Lang) all have strong expressionist elements, and are all probably more watched today than Caligari. Moreso than any of these, however, Caligari really does go all in on the visuals and atmosphere. The twist ending works as much as it does because the move really does seem more like a paranoid fever dream than a realistic drama. It is hard to imagine a more shocking break from convention in film history. Up until Caligari, the whole point of movies was that the camera could accurately record the world as it was. With this movie the cinema seemed to suddenly discover that the camera could record the world as it wasn’t.

What that means is that moreso than any almost any other horror film, Caligari has resisted remakes and sequels in the many decades since. Robert Wiene himself attempted to get a sound remake off the ground years later, but was unable to. The movie finally did receive a direct remake in 2005, featuring modern actors playing in front of greenscreens, which were later replaced with the backgrounds from the original sets. This is more an interesting experiment (a la the Gus Van Sant shot for shot remake of Psycho) than the basis for a movie. But the crazy, unique visuals combined with the general societal context are what make Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, more than the story itself. This is a world gone wrong, a world where all the angles are unfamiliar, where terrible things can and probably will happen. From the point of view of this movie, Germany’s fall was inevitable.

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