Archive for the ‘Silent Film’ Category

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Sunday, October 19th, 2008


For a film that is almost 90 years old, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a power to unsettle and disturb that is pretty astonishing. Directed by Robert Wiene, this silent classic is widely considered to be one of the first true horror films, and is one of the high points in German Expressionistic silent film (don’t I sound like a smarty-pants?) It also has an amazing, bizarre look and style that probably inspired countless filmmakers.

Like Nosferatu, Metropolis, King Kong and other early sci-fi/fantasy/horror films, the exact influence that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has had on the history of film is probably immeasurable. The film centers on the young Francis (Friedrich Feher) who tells a story to another man regarding the sinister Dr. Caligari (the wonderfully expressive Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist henchman Cesare (the silent film star Conrad Veidt). Francis believes that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are behind the murder of Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), Francis’ friend.

Things get murkier when Cesare kidnaps Francis’ young love Jane (played by Lil Dagover). The sequence where Cesare abducts Jane is justifiably famous, and the moment where he plucks her out of her bed is still chilling after all of these years. Most films are lucky to have one memorable villain, this film has two.

As I said earlier, the visual look of this film is astounding. The backgrounds are not realistic, but rather a nightmarish, unsettling landscape of twisting shapes and jagged edges. I learned on the Internet Movie Database that the sets were made out of paper, with the shadows painted on the walls. I can definitely say that the film has a look that you’ve probably never seen before.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also feels ahead of its time in regards to the ending, which could probably be considered a “twist.” It’s unusual for a silent film, I think, to have an ending that makes the audience question the film they’ve just witnessed. This is a horror film, of course, but it has a psychological depth to it, that I think is part of the reason why the film has resonated with so many audiences over so many years.