A seminal horror movie, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI was hailed upon its initial release as the first film to elevate the cinema from the realm of popular entertainment to that of high art.
The story is introduced with a title: "A tale of the modern reappearance of an 11th century myth involving the strange and mysterious influence of a mountebank monk over a somnambulist." Two men are seated outdoors on a bench when Jane (Lil Dagover) passes by. Francis (Friedrich Feher), the
younger man, identifies the girl to his companion as his fiancee and begins to tell him a story:
One day a traveling fair comes to town and Francis and his friend, Alan (Hans Heinz von Twardowski), decide to take it in. Meanwhile, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a member of the carnival, is applying for a permit at the town hall, where he is treated rudely by the town clerk. That evening the
clerk is murdered. At the fairgrounds Francis and Alan attend Caligari's strange exhibit: a sleepwalker named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) whom the doctor keeps in a coffin-shaped cabinet. Caligari claims that Cesare can see into the future and challenges the audience to question the somnambulist. Alan
asks, "How long have I to live?" Cesare answers, "Until tomorrow's dawn." On the way home Alan and Francis meet Jane, a mutual friend. After she departs, the two young men acknowledge that they are both in love with her, that they must let her choose between them, and that--whatever her
choice--they will always remain friends. Later that night Alan is murdered in his bed by Cesare.
On a subsequent night, Cesare breaks into Jane's bedroom, picks her up, and carries her to the rooftop where he is pursued by two men. Eventually he releases Jane and flees. After Jane tells Francis about her ordeal, he and the police go to Caligari's quarters, open the cabinet, and find not
Cesare but a dummy. Caligari makes a hasty exit and is chased by Francis through the gates of a lunatic asylum. There, Francis inquires about a patient named Caligari and is referred to the office of the asylum's director, who turns out to be Caligari himself. Later, while the doctor is sleeping,
Francis reads Caligari's diary and discovers his secret obsession: to learn whether a sleepwalker can be compelled to commit abhorrent acts against his will. When Cesare's dead body is discovered in a field, Francis brings it to the asylum where, accompanied by several staff members, he confronts
Caligari. After a bitter struggle, the mad doctor is straitjacketed and locked up permanently.
So ends Francis's tale. As he and his companion move away from their bench, it becomes apparent that they are in the lunatic asylum of Francis's story. In the courtyard are Francis's fellow inmates, among them Cesare and Jane, and the institution's director, an apparently benign, sane version of
Caligari. "He is Caligari!" Francis repeatedly shouts, and is forced into a straitjacket by attendants. "He believes me to be the mythical Caligari. I think I know how to cure him now," says the director as the film ends.
Inspired by a real-life fairground sex murder and an unpleasant experience that one of the writers had undergone at the hands of a military psychiatrist, the script for CALIGARI was written in six weeks. Fritz Lang was assigned to direct but a previous commitment forced him to depart the project
while it was in preproduction. Before he left he suggested adding a framing story to CALIGARI's basic scenario. His successor, Robert Wiene, picked up on the idea. Having intended their story as a metaphoric attack on militarists (Caligari) who conscript ordinary men (Cesare) into war to kill and
be killed, the screenwriters vehemently objected to the story-within-a-story device which they felt reversed and betrayed their social message, but their protests were unsuccessful. Nonetheless, CALIGARI, which was released in Germany in 1919 and in the US a year later, opened to enormous acclaim.
Today, one can appreciate the outrage of CALIGARI's writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, without lamenting their failure to prevail. The shift of thematic emphasis from social oppression to personal paranoia invests the film with an additional level of disquieting instability and helps keep it
fresh for succeeding generations of moviegoers. Whereas the average viewer can merely sympathize with the oppressed, practically anyone can identify with the paranoid, and identification is a more potent cinematic hook than sympathy.
CALIGARI's most important quality--an element many critics neglect to mention--is its power to scare the viewer. It was and remains a very frightening movie, from the aghast faces in the very first shot to the final chilling irony. Nothing is more horrifying than insanity, and virtually every
major character in the film is insane at one time or another, in one way or another. Even those who aren't certifiable, such as Alan, are downright weird. And like certain old photographs that take on an eerie quality with the passage of time, CALIGARI might be scarier today than it was in its own
It has often been pointed out that THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is not, strictly speaking, a very "cinematic" work: there is nothing at all unusual about its photography or editing. Its avant-garde reputation is based largely on its audaciously expressionistic sets which the players perambulate
like live actors trapped in an animated cartoon.
This classic film was loosely remade in 1962 as THE CABINET OF CALIGARI. Though ponderous in parts, the remake is surprisingly intelligent and compelling. (Violence.)
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- Review: A seminal horror movie, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI was hailed upon its initial release as the first film to elevate the cinema from the realm of popular entertainment to that of high art. The story is introduced with a title: "A tale of the modern reappe… (more)
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