The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari), one of the all-time classics of horror cinema and silent film, shows up at #185 on my master list of silents seen. Since I was so underwhelmed and disappointed by my first viewing experience all those years ago, I designated it as a least-recommended film for a newbie, with the † icon. Highly-recommended first silents are marked with *.
That must’ve been in 2005, given its position on the list and the nearby inclusion of silents I remember having seen for the first time in that year. All I can say is, what a difference ten years makes. I was so engrossed and really loved the film when I recently revisited it for the purposes of writing a few blog posts about it. It all had to do with my attitude, and no longer going in with all that massive hype pushing me away from it.
This is why it’s so important for me to honestly review books, films, and albums, and to recommend them based on their true merits and timelessness, not because they’re surrounded by massive hype. When something’s been obscenely hyped, that almost always gives me a very bad feeling, and I either have to discover it for myself when the hype is gone, or end up with the exact opposite reaction of the crowd. Though there are certainly some silents which I still feel are overrated (and am not alone in feeling this way towards), such as Nosferatu, Sunrise, and The General, I now feel Dr. Caligari is a rightly-acclaimed classic. Perhaps not an ideal first silent, but a great film I wouldn’t recommend avoiding.
Hype isn’t the only thing which unfairly influenced my opinion on some silents I now love. TCM has a bad habit of showing their silents during the graveyard shift or the crack of dawn, so I was naturally quite tired when I watched many of them for the first time. Yes, many people now have DVR, but I didn’t, and there’s a lot to be said for watching TV organically, in real time, instead of pre-recording everything and watching it whenever you want. I’m old-fashioned like that.
Released 26 February 1920, Dr. Caligari stars Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Friedrich Feher, and Lil Dagover. Both Veidt and Twardowski later escaped the Nazis for Hollywood, Veidt because he had a Jewish wife and Twardowski because he was gay. Krauss unfortunately was an outspoken anti-Semite, but Dagover avoided political involvement and usually only appeared in costume musicals and comedies.
The film is one of the earlier examples of a frame story, as the opening sequence is set after the events of the real story. A man named Francis starts telling an old man how much he and his nearby fiancée Jane have suffered, and then the true story begins. (I thought the names had been “translated” in the intertitles, but even the German Wikipedia article uses Anglo names, with the only slight exception being referring to Francis as Franzis.)
Best friends Alan and Francis go to visit a fair in their hometown of Holstenwall, a town typified by German Expressionist style. At this fair is a mysterious old man named Dr. Caligari, who’s gotten grudging permission to exhibit his somnambulist (sleepwalker) Cesare. Dr. Caligari claims Cesare has slept for 23 years, and will make him rise from his coffin-like box and awaken.
Cesare begins answering questions from the audience and telling fortunes, including a shocking fortune for Alan. This fortune comes true just as Cesare foretold, and a series of murders and attempted murders begins. Everyone suspects Cesare, not just in these crimes, but also in the town clerk’s recent murder. The next would-be victim is Jane, who’s abducted while Francis watches Cesare sleeping in his coffin.
I really don’t want to give anything further away at this point, since there are so many twists and turns, all leading up to an ending and shocking plot twists which don’t deserve to be ruined. Suffice it to say, this is one of the classics of silent horror and German Expressionism, and carries powerful messages about the dangers of blindly following authoritarian leaders, the disturbing contrast between sanity and insanity, the subjectiveness of reality, and the duality intrinsic in human nature.