by Steve Habrat
When looking back at the history of the horror film, one of the most essential early entries in the genre is director Robert Wiene’s classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Most people are familiar with Wiene’s German Expressionist masterpiece, even if they are not necessarily aware that they are. While some have surely stumbled across one of the many famous images from this surreal horror tale, most have been exposed to the mind-bending visuals through Rob Zombie’s music video for “Living Dead Girl,” which was essentially a condensed remake that starred Zombie and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Credited as the film that kicked off the German Expressionist movement and single handedly created the twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a singular work that is alive with insanity and chilling in its dreamlike set design. It’s brimming with gothic points, ghostly performances, and a climax that will most certainly divide viewers. Over the years, the film’s writers have claimed that the story was based around a real life murder that occurred in 1913, and many critics have pointed out that the film is a product of the violence and confusion that gripped post-WWI Germany. One thing that is undeniable is that Wiene grabs you by the hair and rips you down the rabbit hole of insanity, and then leaves you to wander that shadows and alleyways that consistently threaten to rob you of your own grip on reality.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins with two men, Francis (played by Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly gentleman, sitting on a park bench when a woman in blinding white wanders past them. As it turns out, this woman is Jane (played by Lil Dagover), Francis’ fiancé with whom he shares a particularly chilling experience. The film then flashes back a few years to the German village of Holstenwall, where Francis lives with his good friend Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Despite the fact that they both are in love with Jane, Francis and Alan decide to attend a carnival. While exploring the scene, the two friends stumble upon a sideshow act run by Dr. Caligari (played by Werner Krauss), who shouts about Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who slumbers in what appears to be a coffin-like cabinet. Dr. Caligari explains that Cesare can see the future and then encourages any brave soul in the crowd to step right up and ask the somnambulist a question. Alan volunteers and asks Cesare how long he will live. The slumbering Cesare awakens and warns Alan that he will be dead by dawn. The next day, Alan is discovered murdered, which immediately makes Francis suspicious of Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Francis alerts the authorities, but the next night, there is another attempted murder. Authorities arrest a small-time criminal, who denies having anything to do with Alan’s murder. Confused and desperate, Francis and the authorities race to find evidence that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are the ones responsible for Alan’s death but their quest to find the killer will lead them to a shocking discovery.
Right from the start, it isn’t hard to tell that something is off about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The text titles appear to the viewer as though they were scribbled by a madman and then decorated with his construction paper creations inspired by his nighttime hallucinations. At times, they seem to be contorting into faces or crosses, the cryptic images of a severely disturbed mind. Francis appears hunched over with dark circles around his eyes, huddled up next to the elderly gentleman who rambles on about spirits being all around them. Seemingly out of nowhere wanders Jane, who appears like a specter that has wandered out of a graveyard just off frame. You half believe that Jane is one of the spirits that the elderly man whispers about, but then Francis begins his spine-tingling tale. From here, Wiene really unleashes the funhouse visuals on the viewer. The characters all wander a village that looks like the brainchild of Salvador Dali if he spent too much time in a graveyard sipping on a glass of absinthe. Windows look like they are melting to the floor, lights twist out of stone like metal snakes, and gothic buildings shoot every which way like thorns on a rose. All of the sets are then plunged into heavy atmospheric shadows that make Holstenwall look like Hell on earth. There isn’t a frame that Wiene doesn’t play up this unforgettable set design, holding a shot long enough for us to in this psychotic dream world brought to life by Hermann Warm. Just to make things creepier, Wiene uses color filters, rich orange to suggest the comfort of late afternoon, or hypnotic blue to imply the bewitching glow of moonlight.
Wandering this prickly maze is one of silent horror’s most recognizable monsters next Max Shreck’s rat-faced Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s pig-like Phantom. That monster would be Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, the slinky somnambulist salve of Dr. Caligari. Donning a pitch-black body suit, a pasty face, and black circles scribbled around his eyes, Cesare nabs the film’s best and most dramatic scare moment. Wiene cuts to a close up of Cesare as Dr. Caligari coaxes him from his slumber. His eyeballs push against his sealed eyelids when suddenly they pop open with fiendish cognizance. He scans the crowd for a man or woman brave enough to face him, slowly turning his neck to face Alan, whose courageousness is diminishing by the second. It is perhaps the most terrifying moment in the entire film. Close behind it is the sequence where Cesare is sent after Jane in the dead of night. Cesare watches her for a moment, only to slink through the window like a shadow and glide right up to her bed. Jane awakens from her deep sleep and stares directly into the face of a ghoul, who responds to her screams by curling his black lips back into what appears to be a smile, one that screams evil. Just watching Veidt creep along the streets with careful footsteps is enough to give anyone nightmares, especially when you marvel at the otherworldly precision with which he maneuvers through the night.
While the supporting Veidt steals the film in his handful of scenes, the supporting acts are the furthest thing from ordinary. Krauss is equally frightening as the squat Dr. Caligari, who peers out at the citizens of Holstenwall through black make-up accentuating the lines of his face. Hidden behind a top hat and glasses, he scowls like Ebenezer Scrooge at anyone who dares point a finger of accusation his way, and an insidious grin spreads across his face as he shovels spoonful after spoonful of slop into Cesare’s mouth. Lil Dagover’s ghostly Jane wonders the film as if she is in a trance, a chiaroscuro spirit who is dragged over the rooftops by Cesare in one of the most iconic sequences of the entire film. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is good-natured as the jolly Alan, who is game to play along with what he believes is a sideshow farce. Friedrich Fehér rounds out the cast as Francis, the hero of our story who doesn’t appear to have the handle on reality that he believes he does. In a way, he is almost like a detective the way he hurries along looking for any clue to help solve his friend’s murder.
The most controversial aspect of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is easily the twist ending, which some may view as a bit of a cheat. There is no doubt in my mind that in 1920, this tacked on surprise left many audience members with their jaws on the floor. I am one that falls into the camp of thinking that the twist is a bit unnecessary, as it washes away the flavor of the events that preceded it. At the time the film was made, the producers believed that the original conclusion was too disturbing, so they encouraged Wiene to shoot a more accessible finale. However, despite this minor complaint, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is still a film unlike any other. There are stretches were you forget you’re watching a silent film and there are images that you could freeze-frame and hang on your living room wall. Whether you’re a fan of cinema or just a casual moviegoer, you owe it to yourself to check out this significant and surreal work of art. Make it a double feature with F.W. Murnau’s Expressionist classic Nosferatu. Your dreams may never be the same.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available on DVD.