The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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An important part of being a cinephile (or at least something that many cinephiles agree is important) is not only do we adore cinema and relish in watching movies, we also have a tendency to have a fascination with the origins of modern cinema – this is understandable, because without knowing where these films originated from and watch inspired all films since the inception of cinema helps one understand and often enjoy cinema more. Due to this idea, I am going to review a series of early films that I think help define cinema, genre by genre, and I will do two things – review the film as a piece of art like I do with any other film, but also talk about the influence the particular film has on subsequent movies. I previously had a look at the screwball comedy genre, looking as It Happened One Night, what is popularly canonized as the film that defined screwball and romantic comedies.

The second genre I’ve taken a look at is horror cinema, by way of viewing the incredible and iconic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the most famous silent films ever made, and arguably the first official, canonized horror film. Directed by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an often terrifying yet strangely hypnotising film that is both a time capsule of silent cinema of the 1920s, a beautiful and stark portrayal of German Expressionism, a highly influential cult film, and most of all, a bold and daring precursor to a genre that would go on to become one of the most popular film genres. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is so many things, and more than anything else, it is a brilliantly complex piece of early cinema that aided in setting the stage for films that followed.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about the titular Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a demented man who attends a fair and presents a spectacle – a somnambulist (or rather a sleepwalker, in more common terms), and little do people know that the prophetic Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is far from just being a simple novelty, because by night Dr. Caligari unleashes him on unsuspecting people, where he brutally murders them, under the control of the sinister Caligari.

Like most silent films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a very simple premise, and it makes use of its lack of dialogue by overcompensating on visual spectacle. Now here’s the problem with films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – this film was made in 1920, which is ninety-seven years ago – this is a film that was made nearly a century ago, and as viewers today, we may see this as a quaint novelty film, with simplistic style and a lack of what many films today take for granted. In order to fully appreciate a film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we have to put down the iPhone, or turn off Netflix and view this through the lens of how people in the 1920s would. This is far from a novelty film, this is one of the most extraordinarily complex works of cinema ever made, and everything from the visuals to the narrative to the plot development was highly ahead of its time – in fact, almost all of the major works of silent cinema were radically ahead of their time. Viewing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from a modern perspective may just lead to boredom. But looking at this film in the same way as audiences did when it was released will result in utter amazement. You just need to suspend disbelief.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, at its very core, was the start of German Expressionist cinema, or at least was the main work we can pinpoint as the official and popular start. It helped define one of the more fascinating eras in cinema history, and we can easily view American films from the same era, and while they might be great, they don’t come close to being as impressive as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other German Expressionist films are. I mention in a few of my reviews in the past that I appreciate it when a film is beautifully filmed, with every frame serving as a painting. That element could have started here with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where actual Expressionist painters were hired to do the production design, and the result was a highly disturbing but artistically unique representation of a nightmarish reality. It captures a certain anxiety and dark sense of humanity that it is impossible to not both be utterly disturbed and drawn into this world. German Expressionism is something I am certainly going to really do in-depth with in the future, because it is a truly unique movement that I think deserves to have a place in the upper echelons of the cinematic canon.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also undeniably a cult film. Obviously I was not around in 1920, so I cannot say first-hand what the reception of this film was, but I can’t imagine it had too many supporters in the mainstream. Even today, it is very strange and surreal piece of cinema, and even by today’s standards, its still a pretty complex and offbeat film. Like all great cult films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari developed its status as a great and highly influential film as time went on, and it sits as one of the most beloved early horror films ever made, and its tendency to be nighmarish, shocking and strange makes it a unique film that may have found it difficult to acquire an audience, but the audience that it did acquire have kept The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as an untouchable classic of the genre, and that’s a great thing.

Finally, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the greatest early horror films ever made. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is the first horror film ever made, a title that arguably belongs to  Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle (Le Manoir du diable), as well as some early adaptations of Frankestein and various Edgar Allen Poe stories did predate The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it was only with German Expressionism that horror cinema started to take shape. It is a film that may not bear outright resemblance to most modern horror films, but without The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and its creation of suspense and different perspectives of reality, we would not have many of the horror films we love. It is strange to watch a film that defined an entire film genre, but it is also strangely liberating to see where the roots of the genre lie, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a mighty impressive start for one of the most successful film genres in cinema history.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a strange film. It obviously won’t appeal to everyone – it is very formal and dated beyond belief, and for those that don’t really have interest in silent cinema, this is not the film to change them. I can only speak from my view, and as someone with an inherent fascination with film history, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is essential viewing. It is wonderful in so many ways and it created a genre, and that is something to give this film even more gravitas, but honestly, does anyone actually need me to say The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a brilliant film? It isn’t an opinion, it’s pretty much a fact at this point – and it’s the truth, because something that influences nearly every subsequent film in the genre has to be, right?

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