‘The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari’ was a very interesting and attention keeping film. I found myself just staring at the actors as well as the very well done German Expressionist set design and painting; some of the scenes were simply amazing to look at.
Being a silent film from 1920 this movie will not appeal to everyone, but it is a good starting place for newcomers to the era and genre. Personally I preferred the restored edition however the original edition would work just as well for this purpose.
That said, Caligari is a movie where almost the entirety of the film is a large flashback, a frame story, being told by a man named Francis. Francis is a key player in the story itself. The story is of a doctor, or mountebank in this case, who travels around from town to town appearing in festivals. His exhibit is that of a prophetic somnambulist (sleepwalker) named Cesare. Their latest stay is in the town of Holstenwall.
Soon after their arrival, a series of mysterious murders start taking place, seemingly unrelated. Later, Cesare’s is giving out his prophecies at the festival. Francis’ friend Alan asks the question of how long he has to live, and Cesare answers with “You die at dawn.” The following morning this comes to pass, infuriating and sending Francis on a mission to find the killer of the now two dead. Fingers almost immediately point to Cesare since he prophesized the killing, however a botched murder attempt elsewhere in the city puts a criminal behind bars and despite claims he had nothing to do with the first two mysterious murders, he’s assumed to be the culprit regardless.
All seems to be back to normal, until Cesare, for reasons explained in the film, is sent out after Francis’ fiancée Jane. Upon setting eyes on her, Cesare instantly becomes infatuated with her beauty and kidnaps her. Cesare’s later death starts the investigation into who really is Dr. Caligari, which is a whole sequence of events in itself.
‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is credited as being the film that introduced the twist ending, admittedly though it took another viewing before I figured out exactly what it was. Just like during the ending, a few times in the film you struggle to understand what’s going on simply because there are so few intertitles strewn throughout to help reveal the story; pantomime only goes so far to convey its message.
With no gore at all, the suspense can be accredited mostly to the soundtrack, but also to the makeup and exaggerated expressions of the cast, they are done remarkably well. Still, Conrad Veidt does a great job of Cesare, and if you don’t count the sets, was the biggest scene stealer in the movie with his makeup and thin frame. Him opening his eyes for the first time in the film is one of the best single scenes in Caligari. Werner Krauss also was great as Dr. Caligari, especially with his hair done up like it was, a gem on screen.
There is plenty to keep your eyes busy all around and this film is definitely a must see for anyone wanting to delve into the history of horror filmmaking.
The movie, in its entirety, is embedded below for your viewing.