Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Sitting on a park bench, a man tells a horrible story that happened to him and his fiancee. The man, named Francis, goes to a carnival with his friend Alan, and the lady Jane who the two men share affection for. A strange man named Dr. Caligari claims to briefly awaken the mysterious Cesare from a coma, where he foretells the future. Alan, making a game of it, asks "How long shall I live?" Cesare replies "The time is short. You die at dawn!"

Guess what. He does! That'll teach him to not take creepy carnival acts seriously.

Widely regarded as the first feature length horror film, it was groundbreaking in it's style and influence. The crate paper sets were remarkably stylistic. Dramatic shadows were painted directly onto the sets.

Here's some interesting stuff: Cesare (Conrad Veidt) went on to play Major Strasser in Casablanca. He would do one more movie before dying at age 50. He fled Nazi Germany and made a minor career for himself playing Nazis. He was set to play Dracula, but lost the role to Bela Lugosi.

The "cabinet" the title refers to is the box Cesare is kept in. The twist ending was apparently added by the producers who wanted a less "macabre" story. Cesare is described as a somnambulist, which means sleepwalker. Not sure if that description fits.

The film is available on the public domain, but I would suggest finding the KINO restoration. By no means flawless, it is significantly better in video quality, which is important for a silent film. One note, however. In the special features, you have the option of choosing the score. The default, modern score is awful. I didn't try the traditional score, but it has to be better.

Creepy, if not actually scary, all horror films owe a debt to Dr. Caligari. AMRU 3.5.


  1. I have every intention of getting to this one before the end of the year, I have put it off for faaar too long! Love the German Expressionism in film, I know I will dig it, thanks for the reminder!

  2. Yea, my only complaint was that there were very few relevant special features. There was this "vampire" story called Genuine that was also expressionist.

    It is funny how many German films are so important in early cinema. Eventually I'll cover Nosferatu and Faust.

    Interesting thing in Inglourious Basterds (awesome movie) was that the plot to kill Hitler at a German film festival was called Operation Kino.