The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

10/10/2017 17:37

Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)

Year: 1920

Director: Robert Wiene

Writer: Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz

Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Friedrich Feher



This film I saw for the first time during my first quarter in college. I took Intro to World Cinema and this was one of the first films there. I was bull headed at the time, but I did enjoy it. It wasn’t until some years down the line that I ended up really loving it. It is fitting that my viewing before this was in the theater at the Gateway Film Center. I did watch it yet again for my podcast as part of the Centennial Club. The synopsis is Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) uses a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), to commit murders.

We begin with two men in a garden. One man, Rudolf Lettinger, tells the other he has been haunted by spirits to the point where he has had to flee his home and family. We then see a woman in white walk through, Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover). The younger man is Franzis (Friedrich Feher) tells how that is his fiancé and that they’ve gone through a lot as well. He goes into the story.

We then learn that a fair is coming to this town. Dr. Caligari goes to see the clerk about getting a permit for a display. When he tells them what it is, which involves a somnambulist, the men in the office laugh at him. If you don’t know, this is someone who sleeps all the time, but Dr. Caligari can wake them up. This person is Cesare and he supposedly knows all of the secrets of the past and predicts the future.

Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) goes over to Franzis’ place so they can go to this fair. They end up at Dr. Caligari’s tent. He wakes up Cesare and announces the abilities he has. Alan rushes the stage to ask a question, with Franzis following. He asks when he will die to which Cesare answers before dawn.

We end up learning there has been murder and the two men see a poster for it. On their route, they run into Jane. Both men are in love with her, but after they walk her home, they make a pact that whichever one of them she falls for, they’ll still be friends. Alan is murdered that night though by a strange person in his room.

Franzis is distraught and promises that he will solve the murders. He seeks out the aid of Jane’s father, Dr. Olsen (Lettinger). Together they try to get of the bottom of all this.

I’ve already laid out my history with this film, but I have to acknowledge what the influence on Hollywood and how film stories are told now. I actually took German as my foreign language in college as well and to pass my final class for that requirement, I had to do a presentation completely in German so I chose the German Expressionism movement, which this film falls into. Now those of you reading this might not realize that you’ve seen the influence of this movement if you’ve ever watched a Tim Burton film, especially A Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride or Beetlejuice. I felt that to open up this review, I had to bring this up.

Since story is what draws me in the most, I will touch on that now. Being the 1920s and the early stages of film, the story is extremely straight forward. This sometimes is a problem for me due to low running times, but for this film, it doesn’t as I realize the more and more I watch it, there’s a lot to this. I could be wrong, but this concept of a somnambulist being controlled to commit crimes is something we don’t see a lot of in today’s stories and I like it. From what I gather, Dr. Caligari is a kind of a folk story. I’m not sure if this is a real story or something made up for the film, but I find that part of it very interesting.

Now there’s a reveal at the end of the film is something we see a lot today, but for this time period to be when it started highly impressed me. It’s actually something that I don’t really like anymore, but for what they’re doing here, I think it works, especially with how distorted the reality of what’s on screen. There’s a nightmare quality to it and that fits perfectly. This is actually quite depressing as well, which makes sense since this is right after World War I and Germany was struggling. I ended up watching a documentary on the DVD that I have, which explains how this almost predicts the Nazi regime that would take over Germany. I can’t necessarily get on board, but I can see with how they’re feeling that the German people were ripe for it.

For this section, I really want to talk about the setting. It is filmed on a stage, almost as you would for a play. The background is drawn, but what makes it great is that it is distorted. There are no straight lines and it doesn’t look real. This adds to the atmosphere of the film, even more so when you get to the ending. They use a light and dark filter to simulate day and night, which is clever for early cinema. They will use the camera iris to focus your attention on something or if someone is looking through a tighter space. Since the film is silent, they have to use title cards for exposition and even those are distorted to help build the tension of the film. I think they did a solid job at building it and with the low running time, it works as well. This clocks in 67 minutes and I’ve seen other films from the era that go much longer. It is hard there’s just music playing so it interesting a film like this can just command my attention like it does.

Acting is harder to really judge during the silent film era. They have to overact and act much like you would see in a stage play due to the fact that you cannot hear them. I will say that thanks to the high quality of the restoration I saw, you really can see how well the make-up is done on them. Krauss was solid and looked menacing. Veidt has a creepy introduction and his make-up was also well done. I also thought that as the film goes on, Feher looks more and more troubled which I liked. Dagover doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when she does she is comparable to Feher. She is quite attractive as well. I would say the rest of the cast rounded out the movie for what was needed.

The score to the film, though I’m not sure if it is original, was definitely well done. At times it is ominous and then when it is a more tension filled scene, it ramps that up and definitely is a plus. This last viewing, my disc had a soundtrack done by a DJ Spooky. There were times that I did think it added a bit extra to the movie while other times I thought it didn’t necessarily fit and took me out of it. I think this is something interesting though with silent films is to see them with different soundtrack as many times they’re either lost, we don’t know what was put with them or seeing a more modern take. I prefer a more classical score for this movie though.

Now with that said, this film is great. I am combining the film and its historical significance in my final rating. This film and the movement it had a huge part in changing Hollywood and films we see today. The story itself isn’t complex and the film has a low running time, but it doesn’t hurt it for me. The acting is solid for the era. The backgrounds are wonderful as well as the score to the film. I will warn you, the film is from Germany, but that doesn’t affect it nearly as much being a silent film. You have to read the title cards anyway. It is from the 1920s and in black and white. I would recommend this if you are diehard horror fan who wants to see more of the history of the genre. If not, then this probably won’t be for you.


My Rating: 10 out of 10