This Halloween I am delighted to share a film that a reader, Hunter author of Soul of the Plot, suggested I see. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a brilliant German silent film from 1920. It’s horror is felt through the uncanny story and eerie images throughout the film. For film fans not quite comfortable with silent film, but fans of horror, this is a great piece to check out.
In the film, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are friends competing for the heart of Jane (Lil Dagover). At a carnival, they see a side show featuring Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist. The somnambulist is named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) and perpetually sleeps unless awakened and controlled by Dr. Caligari. He claims that Cesare can predict the future, so Alan asks him how long he has to live. Cesare replies, “Til dawn tomorrow,” and Alan is brutally murdered that night. He is the latest in a string of mystery murders plaguing the town since the carnival started. Francis wonders if Dr. Caligari is the cause, but his investigation may put those he loves, and himself, in danger.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered to hold a few firsts in film history. In 1920, a horror genre had not yet been created and this is seen to be the first horror film ever created. And not to ruin the ending, but this film is also considered to be the first with a twist ending. Don’t worry, that isn’t giving too much away, for a while it was expected of every M. Night Shyamalan film, though the ending of Dr. Caligari is even more unexpected than Bruce Willis being dead the whole time.
This is also considered one of the most famous of director Rober Wiene’s films and one of the most influential of the German expressionist era, right alongside Metropolis. Partially, I believe that comes down to the new genre and inventive plot, but also comes from the stylistic set design. It’s said that the sets were made of paper, with many of the dramatic shadows painted on. The town and buildings have an almost cartoonish and abstract quality with curious angles. It gives the film a more eerie vibe, like being in a nightmare. The total cost of the sets was only about eight hundred dollars.
What a way to end this year’s month of horror, with the original horror film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film I enjoyed very much, and until it was brought to my attention, I had never even heard of it. I do encourage you to check it out, it is currently available on Netflix instant, a true gem of the silent era, and the beginnings of a unique genre. Happy Halloween!
“You fools, this man is plotting our doom! We die at dawn! He is Caligari!”
Glad you got to see the film 🙂
I never knew the sets were made out of paper! That’s pretty amazing.
This is still the oldest film I’ve seen, and one of my favorites. There’s just something really creepy about the sets, the makeup, and stiff way everyone moves. It’s so different from anything in the horror genre now, that it creeps me out for that reason alone. The silence also helps.
I was pretty blown away the first time I saw it, especially with the twist ending. Pretty insane 🙂
That ending made my jaw drop, and the makeup was so wonderfully creepy. Thanks again for recommending it. 🙂