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Cabinet of Caligari

From the DVD case: This silent masterpiece has been called the first “cult” movie and the first horror film of genuine quality and substance. A young student, Francis (Friedrich Fehér), encounters evil magician, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), at a county fair. Caligari’s act consists of waking a frightening somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), from the coffin where, it is claimed, he has lain asleep for years.

When Francis’ best friend is murdered and a killing spree erupts in the small village, he suspects that Caligari is using Cesare to commit the ghastly crimes. When Cesare is sent to murder the student’s fiance, Joan (Lil Dagover), he is so smitten with her beauty that he abducts her instead. Francis tracks Caligari to a nearby insane asylum where he is horrified to learn that the doctor is not an inmate but the director of the institution! The surprise ending is as shocking and perplexing today as it was when originally released.

Set designer Hermann Warm enlisted Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, fellow members of Berlin’s expressionist Der Sturm group, to act as art directors. They created the unprecedented look of the sets, costumes and makeup to reflect the mind of a madman. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari demonstrated to all future filmmakers that psychological horror could equal or exceed the effects of physical shocks. (1920, b&w, silent)

Mark says: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari) came about when two Eastern Europeans, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, sold their script to producer Erich Pommer, director of the Decla Film Company in Berlin. The script was based on events taken from their own lives. As recounted by Alan Jones in his book, The Rough Guide to Horror Movies:

Strolling down the Reeperbahn in Hamburg in 1913, Janowitz saw a respectable gentleman emerge from behind bushes, adjust his clothes and merge into the evening crowd. The next day, newspapers carried a story about a young girl who had been raped and murdered in exactly the same place. Convinced that he’d seen the murderer, Janowitz attended the girl’s funeral and saw his suspect again. The killer was never apprehended and Janowitz became obsessed by the possibility that casual assassins were freely roaming the streets laughing at authorities.

This incident, and an act they both witnessed at a funfair, along with Mayer’s encounter with an unsympathetic army psychiatrist during military service, was the impetus for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Fritz Lang (Metropolis) was originally slated to direct the film, but because of prior obligations, the position went to Robert Wiene. Interestingly enough, Wiene was considered uniquely fit to direct the film because his father, once a famous actor, had gone mad towards the end of his life.

The film itself is an amazing visual treat. The fantastically distorted sets, the bizarre, elongated furniture, and the unnerving make-up effects (especially in regards to the somnambulist) all contribute to the delusional state of a madman.

The story is told in flashback, framed by scenes of the “present.” The original tale was intended as a pacifist parable (Cesare representing the “sleepwalking” people, and Caligari a symbol of the State, clothed in the guise of respectability, but secretly ordering others to kill for him). However, the framing sequences negated the “message” of the film, reportedly enraging Janowitz and Mayer, but also transforming the movie into a timeless masterpiece.

The twist ending is something modern writer/directors like M. Night Shyamalan would be proud of. I am still amazed how, on first viewing, I was drawn into the story only to have the tables completely (and wonderfully!) turned on me. It’s little wonder that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been dubbed the first cult film.

Scene to watch for: Dr. Caligari feeds his somnambulist some din-din.

Quote to watch for: “I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!”

Bonus: Download The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Internet Archive.

Wikipedia entry: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.



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