Skip navigation

Category Archives: Movie Reviews 1920s

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.




From the video case: An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is a silent classic that reigns as one of the most frightening films to ever cast its shadow upon a silver screen.

Instrumental in the effectiveness of Nosferatu was director F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist approach, a style of filmmaking characterized by shadowy settings and nihilistic themes, exploring the darkened recesses of the human mind with a distinctly imposing visual style.

Rather than depicting Count Dracula as a shape-shifting monster or a debonair gentleman, Murnau’s Graf Orlok (as portrayed by Max Schreck) is a nightmarish, spidery creature of bulbous head and taloned claws, perhaps the most genuinely disturbing incarnation of vampirism the cinema has yet produced. (1922, b&w, silent)

Mark says: I’m doing an injustice to this film by reviewing it on a “B-movie” site, but it certainly qualifies as a horror/cult classic. Let’s be clear from the beginning: Nosferatu is a cinematic work of art, not a drive-in second feature.

So much has been written about Nosferatu and its great direction by F.W. Murnau (Faust, Der Januskopf) that I can do little but echo the applause. It’s place in horror cinema can not be overstated.

Though the acting, by today’s standards, seems marred with the limits of silent film, the overall atmosphere is somber and bleak. Once Max Schreck appears, you are no longer distracted by demonstrative performances.

However, this film is not only a work of German expressionistic art, it’s scary, too.

Take this little test with me. Suppose you are walking down a dark alley, whom would you least like to meet:

a) Bela Lugosi as Dracula?

b) Christopher Lee as Dracula?

c) or, Max Schreck as Count Orlok?

If you’re like me, Bela would make me slightly uneasy, and Mr. Lee may cause me to move to the other side of the alley, but Max Schreck would make me scream and run in the other direction entirely.

Schreck’s portrayal of Orlok is so hideously vile that he invokes disgust even in modern day viewers. Orlok is a monster’s monster, part corpse, part spider, part rat, and completely evil. Even his shadow will give you the creeps. All this without the benefit of sound.

Though Nosferatu is based on Stoker’s Dracula, there are some significant differences. Most strikingly, the use of Christian symbols (primarily the cross) are stripped from Murnau’s film. With the religious overtones removed from the story, it becomes less about a conflict between good and evil, and more about the conflict of human nature.

In Stoker’s novel, Van Helsing plays a tremendously significant role, but in Nosferatu, Bulwer (the Van Helsing equivalent), is reduced to a background player. Bulwer has nothing whatsoever to do with the vampire’s destruction, leaving this responsibility to Ellen.

It’s interesting to note, that Stoker’s widow sued when she saw the obvious similarities to her husband’s story. As a result, all prints of Nosferatu were ordered destroyed. Fortunately for us, prints kept cropping up in other countries, giving us the privilege of enjoying the film in our own homes.

The historic significance of Nosferatu would be enough to give it a top rating, but it’s the artful direction of F.W. Murnau combined with the genuinely chilling performance by Max Schreck that rightfully earns it my highest distinction.

Scene to watch for: Count Orlok wanders the streets toting his coffin.

Quote to watch for: “Not so hasty my young friend! No one escapes his destiny.”

Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.


%d bloggers like this: