The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

By Justin Hamelin

Released: 1920

Directed by: Robert Wiene

One of my all-time favorite horror films, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari starts off with a young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) telling the tale of him and his fiancée Jane’s recent horrors at a fair.

Werner Krauss portrays one of the most iconic names in horror, the maniacal Dr. Caligari, in what many consider one of the first true horror films in cinema history.

The film revolves around the doctor who has a mysterious exhibit at an annual fair in Holstenwall. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari features the creepy looking doctor controlling his somnambulist Cesare, played spectacularly by Conrad Veidt (Casablanca, The Man Who Laughs).

After Dr. Caligari proclaims his somnambulist can prophesize the future, the zombie-like Cesare awakens to tell a young man he will be dead by dawn. The next morning comes and the young man is found dead. Francis, who accompanied the victim to the fair the day before, suspects Cesare is the murderer. Thus begins Francis’ vigilante investigation on both the sleepwalker and the mad doctor.

The next night, Cesare sneaks into the room of the beautiful Jane, intent on killing her. Cesare shows a glimmer of humanity by not stabbing Jane, instead abducting her and running from a pack of outraged townsfolk who are hunting down the murderer. One final spark of humanity comes when Cesare gives up and gently lays Jane on the ground, then running for a bit more before dying of exhaustion.

Amidst all this, Francis is still hot on the trail of Dr. Caligari, bringing a group of policemen to Caligari’s abode to investigate. This brings forth one of the most suspense-filled moments in the film, in which we realize Cesare is not in Dr. Caligari’s possession at that time and the doctor successfully eludes the policemen. Caligari dashes into an asylum, and Francis quickly catches up to him. This is where Francis makes a mortifying discovery, only to slip into madness himself.

These days, we are suffocated with CGI effects and mindless story lines in far too many horror flicks. People seem to not realize the magic and work that went into films of yesterday, particularly this one, which is nearly 100 years old. It’s interesting to note this film was the first German film acknowledged in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” book. A silent film where all backgrounds were painted on paper and shadows were painted on, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari packs a fantastic psychological punch and it certainly deserves all the credit it receives and then some.

My Grade: 10/10

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