The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The first true horror picture – jolting postwar masses & changing history launching the German Expressionist movement, Wiene’s nightmarish, metaphoric, silence-set psychological dreamscape is one of the most groundbreaking films ever. 9.5/10.

Plot Synopsis: At a carnival in Germany, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Rudolf Lettinger) encounter the crazed Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). The men see Caligari showing off his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a hypnotized man who the doctor claims can see into the future. Shockingly, Cesare then predicts Alan’s death, and by morning his chilling prophecy has come true — making Cesare the prime suspect. However, is Cesare guilty, or is the doctor controlling him?

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review

The Birth Of German Expressionism

A Nightmarish, Metaphoric, Silence-Set Psychological Dreamscape Chef D’Ouevre; One Of The Most Breathtaking Experiences

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

Europe, 1920’s. A new movement called German Expressionism launches – characterized by hallmarks including sharp pointed forms, oblique curving lines, structures and landscapes twisting in bizarre ways, and shadows/streaks of light much more defined and abstract than nature allows. Robert Wiene first launched the movement and skyrocketed it to fame in this masterpiece of cinema that stands even a century later – one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I’ve ever had in film and one that changed the trajectory of cinematic history. The first true horror picture – jolting postwar masses & changing history launching the German Expressionist movement, Wiene’s nightmarish, disturbing, metaphoric, silence-set psychological dreamscape is one of the most groundbreaking films of All-Time.

The Screen’s Original Madman

The First True Horror Film, TCODC Is A Psychological Scarefest A Century Before Its Time – By The Game-Design Of Dr. Caligari

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most stunning visual experience I’ve ever witnessed in film. That is quite a statement, considering it was made when resources were practically-nonexistent – the nescience of filmmaking, wherein the entire medium was still remote flickers of evolutionary idealism instead of $300M mega-blockbusters wielding nearly a century of technological advancements making nearly-anything you can imagine possible on screen. Yet, that’s exactly what the difference is: TCODC utilizes imagination, set design, cinematography, and painting-like finesse of artists bent on Van Gogh-like masterpieces instead of hiding behind technology or studio checks. The film will drop your jaw and leave it firmly on the floor in how absolutely bonkers and impossible its artistic masterstroke display is; it’s like a Salvador Dali painting in motion – with such disorientating proto-surrealist trippiness, it feels like you’re literally watching a nightmare on-screen with powerful chiaroscuro, vignettes, and outré color gradients.

The Painstaking Restoration Process

Pure, Difficult D.E.C.L.A. Craftsmanship To Deliver This Lost 1920 German-Expressionist Masterpiece Back To Screen

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

The painstaking restoration process to deliver this lost early-20th century work to our screens is alone a triumph as well – 4k restoration from the original camera negative at Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin with golden and midnight-blue colour basis from two nitrate prints by way of Latin America today at the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf and Cineteca di Bologna. No detail escaped these filmic artisans’ grasp: from Cesare’s bone-chilling make-up to Caligari’s iconic tophat ensemble to the jungle green and ultraviolet glow-in-the-dark transition cards each having more artistic value & auterism than most feature length films today. This is before we even get to the Pandara’s box of set design. Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Roehrig’s lifetime achievements bring this canvas of delirium to life – with perhaps the greatest set/production design of All-Time sculpting the twisting cityscapes, carnival tents, curving structures, and shadows/light painted directly onto the set with almost no resources or technological cruxes: just old-fashioned craftsmanship and painstaking attention to (surgical) detail bursting through every frame. The most special and unforgettable visual experience I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in my entire lifetime as a critic.

The Genre’s First: Slasher Or Victim?

Cesare: A Blood-Curdling Somnambulist Creation & Cinema’s First Slasher, Or Is He?

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

The score and idiosyncratic performances. Equally as bursting of personality and artistry is the orchestral accompaniment to this psychologically-disturbing delirium. From its bombastic first powerchord key blasting us with theatricality and omens, the atmosphere is lit with the most diverse, arthouse soundscape in history – often setting trends & norms an entire genre of thousands of other films would follow. Off-key harmonics, jarring churning cello hits, wavering woodwind sections, piccato strings, xylophones, wurlitzer fugue themes, and a harsh proto-slasher theme juxtaposing soft innuendo flute ones spellbind us – hypnotically putting us under such a trance, we feel like we might be Cesare ourselves! The other noteworthy feature is that the film does not even utilize or employ words or dialogue, not even needing it to relate this powerful fantasy adventure or distract us from the score putting 10x more pressure on its every note – that still manages to amaze and beguile us as a truly inimitable musicianship accomplishment.

A Masterpiece Of Set/Prod.-Design

Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Roehrig’s Spellbinding Set-Design: Probably The Greatest Canvas Of All-Time

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

The performances are just special – Werner Krauss’ Dr. Caligari is the performance of a lifetime he delivers with villainy in his every bone’s rotation and coy, theatricality-bursting movement that stands the test of time nearly a century later still being one of the most striking and greatest villain performances in film history. Conrad Veidt’s bone-chilling Cesare is like The Grudge x Scream x Dracula for a striking appearance that’ll make your blood curdle when he’s holding that knife at your bedside as one of the genre’s most supple, malleable, almost acrobatic-flair slashers. Lil Dagover plays a convincing love interest, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski and Rudolph Lettinger support nicely, and, finally: Friedrich Feher plays an immaculate, sketchy narrator overblown with emotion we have no choice but to see as innocent upon first glance – until the very last moment that tests our sanity and conventions of storytelling itself.

The Greatest Visual Experience Of 1900’s

Narrative Structure Millennia Before Its Time – & One Of The Most Jaw-Dropping Visual Experiences In Cinematic History

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

The story and narrative structure itself are decades ahead of its time – with wild metaphoric complexity cementing its dramaticism and fantasy in something bold compositionally. TCODC’s story is absolutely sensational – a suspicious figure at the local fair unveils a somnambulist showcase that attracts great applause and wonder. That same night, strange crimes start to happen and people tell stories of an urban legend-ic white-faced figure breaking into people’s homes and killing them. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is thus the first horror film ever made, with inklings of slasher and psychological terrorizing subgenres and a groundbreaking achievement that changed the trajectory of cinematic history launching what would become the most successful fimic genre of All-Time box office and monetarily 60-100+ years before its Golden-Age. The careful, painstaking order with which Wiene’s story and plot device is laid out before us shows us a mad doctor who is captured and asylum-ized for his sadistic acts of nightmarish fantasy in the pseudonym of scientific pursuit as what we’re conditioned by storytelling conventions to believe is the true story and thus justice to a criminal, or is it?

A Critical Metaphoric Backbone

The Social Commentary On Complex Themes: Despotism, Learned Helplessness, Psychology, Morality, & Helsinki Syndrome

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

A Shyamalan-ic plot twist assaults our senses and normalcy when the entire reality of what we’ve just witnessed and trusted as told authentically by its narrator is turned on its head – we see our narrator himself carted off into the same asylum he demonized the entire film as the Krauss and Veidt’s characters are seen as Doctors and seemingly-normal passersby. This begs to question whether the film’s events truly happened at all, or were they the ramblings and fantasy nightmares of a madman and how he sees/makes sense of the personnel and practitioners around him as an important glimpse into mental illness itself? It’s up for multi-interpretive discourse as perhaps the original twist ending that shocks you worse than an electric chair. Brilliant. The film overall thematizes the brutality of authority with brilliant social commentary of Germany’s Helsinki Syndrome-like ties to dictatorial tyrants – with Dr. Caligari symbolizing the German war movement (and prophetically almost a premonition to Hitler and the Nazi party) and Cesare the innocent citizen hypnotized under its spell into complacent subjugation if the film’s events as narrator-told are to be followed perfectly punctuating this tale of insane criminality of straight-jacket aslyum-ic proportions in intellectualism and metaphoric symbolism.

Conclusion

A Cinematic Experience Like None Other

One Of The Most Striking, Revolutionary, & Game-Changing Avant-Garde Masterpieces Ever – & The First Horror Movie Ever Made

Photograph Courtesy Of: D.E.C.L.A.

Overall, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most revolutionary and groundbreaking pieces of filmmaking ever made. It can be credited as the first horror picture, a painting-in-motion, an avant-garde dreamscape or nightmare whose events are open to interpretation, a plot twist ending shaking the foundations and norms of storytelling on-screen, a masterpiece of set/production design and powerful acting without resources or technological cruxes, and the beginning of the cult film, arthouse, and film-noir movements over a century before you’re reading this article. A visual masterpiece jolting postwar masses & changing history launching the German Expressionist movement, Wiene’s nightmarish, disturbing, metaphoric, silence-set psychological dreamscape is one of the greatest films of All-Time.

Official CLC Score: 9.5/10