Horror wears many different faces. From the creatures that lurk in the darkness, the monsters who wait for us just around the corner, the ghosts who haunt our dreams while we sleep and even the macabre awaits to fill us with fear. Horror is a long staple of cinema and traces back as far as the earliest films made in the late 1800s. It’s difficult to pinpoint which film is to be considered the “first horror film,” as there are several to choose from, but one can’t ignore the story of Dr. Caligari. The name itself is rather mysterious and garners some to ponder said name, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often considered the “first true horror film” by film historians.
So, with a mysterious title that most have never heard of, yet is now one hundred years old, is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still relevant even by today’s standards? How does such a silent film hold up after all these years? What makes this movie stand out and why is it so memorable? To answer these questions, let’s wind the clock back to a century ago when the times were different and movies were still at an age of self-discovery.
Any good movie needs a catchy plot to attract the audience. Sure, you can say that the actors bring people to the theater, but it’s the plot and characters that we will remember the most and Dr. Caligari certainly has a unique story to tell. The film takes place in Germany and a carnival is coming to town, with Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Rudolf Lettinger) eager to see the coming attractions. We don’t see much of the specifics of the carnival, however, until we meet the man himself, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). The sets of the carnival and town are among the most noteworthy in this film due to how different and abstract they look, serving as a definitive example of German Expressionism. Most buildings are oblong with long pointy edges. The streets are kept in straight form even as they form unusual curves peculiar angles.
When Francis and Alan arrive at the carnival they meet a woman named Jane (Lil Dagover), whom both men fall in love with. They proceed to attend the attraction of Dr. Caligari, who is about to unveil his somnambulist, better known as a sleepwalker. This man has been asleep for many years and, upon hearing the words of Dr. Caligari, he will awaken and stun the audience. This proves to be true and once the somnambulist arises, he shocks the audience with his ability to tell someone’s future. Alan is reluctantly persuaded by Francis to ask Cesare, the somnambulist, what his future will be. Cesare informs him that he will be dead at dawn, something which horrifies Alan and everyone in attendance.
It isn’t long before Alan is found murdered the following morning, and both the investigators and Francis suspect Cesare of being the killer. What ensues is a pursuit of the truth, combined with some knowledge of someone else pulling the string altogether. I won’t talk about the plot much further because it would ruin the experience for someone who truly appreciates the quality of silent movies, which are among my favorite to watch.
There is a bit of a surprise towards the end of the film which may leave some viewers confused at first. I was one of them. Without revealing what happens, this movie pulls the rug from under the audience in the form of a twist ending, something that heavily displeased screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. According to what I was able to read, the screenwriters said the ending was forced upon them without their approval and, given its inherent strangeness, I imagine they had a different conclusion on their minds. Nevertheless, it’s still an ending that lives in infamy.
One thing you have to remember is that Dr. Caligari was released in 1920, just after the end of World War I. Apparently, the screenwriters drew their experiences from the war when writing this film. Not in the murders, or the carnival, or the prophecy of death, but rather the lack of trust in people of authority. There are many correlations present throughout the film that tell of an authority figure who displays brutal and domineering control. If someone were to watch the film today, you may not pick up on these themes from the start, but when you read further into behind-the-scenes motifs discussed by historians and critics, then a larger picture unveils itself. I implore you to read the production notes of this film after viewing it- you’ll be surprised at what you discover.
After watching the film, I had so rousing questions of my own. Just seeing the carnival and the backdrop designs are among the first things that capture your attention. It looks so odd, so strange. Think of a Dr. Seuss story that was directed by Tim Burton, but with a dark story and even darker overtones. That’s the equivalent of what I thought about while viewing Dr. Caligari. It’s not filmed nor presented in a traditional sense, or even as something that resembles the natural world. I wondered if this played a part for a good amount of Burton’s fantasy films like Alice in Wonderland?
As you may have guessed, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari surely made its impact on future stories that are told even today. The film’s style is wholesomely unique and its story does offer quite a bit of mystery. I’ve always been fond of silent movies due to the fact that audiences have to play very close attention to what’s unfolding before our eyes. And this stylistic approach ensures that the film remains timeless even a century later. A sequel of sorts was released in 1989 under the title Dr. Caligari, but even to this day, a remake has never materialized.
Sure, a remake could work but, given the fact that modern horror audiences are desensitized to on-screen violence, this film would perhaps bore them. When you think about it, people who lived a hundred years ago had never witnessed something like this before on the big screen. Even still, a silent movie has its place in history and sometimes it’s better left at that time period, but never forget the impact it made.
It’s design is very unusual, the characters are fully realized and the twist ending is sure to get you wondering to yourself “what is going on?” It’s my opinion that silent movies can’t be simply talked about; one must simply view the film and form their opinions as they watch it. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may not be scary by today’s standards, but if you look back long ago, I’m sure that people left the theater either shaken or a least eager to discuss it with their fellow moviegoers.
Silent movies are a rare treat and if you ever find yourself eager to experience one, then The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari should make your list. From it’s design, great soundtrack, mysterious story and inspirational direction from Robert Weine, Dr. Caligari is one for the books of great movies. Personally, I wasn’t completely enthralled with the film, as I would’ve preferred another ending, but watching it made me wonder about the extent to which future films were shaped by its release. Don’t count this one out just for being a silent film, as there is much to see and enjoy in the greatest fashion of the macabre on display!