366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

“Isn’t it true—it’s the Director who’s insane!”–The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Friedrich Feher, , Lil Dagover

PLOT: A young man, Francis, sits on a bench in the garden of an insane asylum; when a woman walks by in a trance, he explains to a bystander that she is his fiancée, and launches into the strange story of how she ended up here. He tells the tale of how a mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, came to his town with a sideshow, exhibiting a “somnambulist” who predicted the deaths of citizens who were later found murdered. After his best friend and romantic rival turns up among the victims, Francis launches his own investigation into Caligari, tracking him to the insane asylum where he discovers that the doctor, under a different name, is actually the director of the facility…

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

BACKGROUND:

  •  The script was co-written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, two pacifists. Mayer had feigned madness to escape military service during World War I. Despite signing a contract allowing the producer to make whatever changes he deemed necessary, they strenuously objected to the addition (or the alteration; accounts differ) of the framing story.
  • discovered the script and was originally supposed to direct, until scheduling conflicts prevented his participation.
  • The early days of cinema were highly nationalistic. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was initially banned in France; not because of its content, but because it was German, and French distributors did not think they should have to face competition from a country they had just defeated in a war. But Caligari made such a sensation when film critic Louis Delluc arranged for it to be screened for charity that the French removed their ban on German pictures. The French even took to calling Expressionism “Caligarisme.” Caligari‘s release was also protested in the U.S. solely on the basis that it was a German production.
  • In screenings in the United States, Caligari was sometimes presented with a live theatrical epilogue explaining that the characters had fully recovered from their madness.
  • Among its many honors: ranked 235 in Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time; listed in Steven Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s no really a single frame of Caligari that stands out; it’s the cumulative effect of its Cubist settings, the spiky windows and dark alleys winding at weird angles, that gets under your skin.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Slanted city; greasepaint somnambulist; you must become Caligari

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s arguably: the first classic horror movie. The first classic Expressionist movie. Cinema’s first twist ending. The first movie shot from a perspective of radical subjectivity. The godfather of Surrealist film. And it still creeps you out today. It’s the first weird movie. Caligari‘s blood still flows through everything we love.


Blu-ray trailer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

COMMENTS: The entire plot of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be thoroughly summarized in one medium-sized paragraph. There is little emotional content to the film, beyond simple impressions of love and fear. As when gazing at a painting, the viewer must supply his or her own psychological and thematic depth. Although Caligari (with his bushy hair, horn-rimmed glasses and top hat) and Cesare (in his fresh-from-the-coffin Goth makeup) are well-outfitted, their acting is silent-movie standard melodramatics. The camera is largely static, and the editing is advanced for the time but standard today. All of the ingredients we usually think of as making up a great film are above-average, but not necessarily spectacular; and yet, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is unquestionably one of the greatest movies ever made. Why?

I can think of no other movie in history that is so thoroughly dominated by its sets: not by the acting, script, or cinematography, but by the actual physical locales where everything plays out. The set concepts of Caligari are so simple, yet unique, that no one could use them again without being accused of being derivative (or at best, of engaging in homage). You can see them in some of ‘s work, and even more distant echoes in something like Dark City. But nowhere else is the Expressionist mind given such free rein to skew and slant every angle in the world as it is in Caligari. Every line that should be straight is curved. Everything that should be a rectangle is a trapezoid. Even the lamps hang at a 45 degree angles. The shadows are painted on the walls. The plazas of Holstenwall look like neurons, with shadowy alleyways and staircases branching off like dendrites. Our first glimpse of the city is a painting of spiky rooftops crowded on a hilltop, every shack pitching unsteadily towards the center. Every structure looks like it’s about to tumble over. Caligari marches down streets with arcane symbols scratched on the walls, and in one case, with his own taunting thoughts scratched directly on the film. The interior world of fear becomes our external reality. It is a masterpiece of milieu, a mad, tottering city of the imagination where anything—especially anything horrible—might happen.

The Cabinet of Caligari‘s major theme is distrust of authority. It reflects the time and place that birthed it: Weimar Germany, whose citizens had just been defeated in the largest and deadliest war then ever seen. The war was so devastating that pacifism started to look less like a pipe dream and more like an imperative. The traumatized postwar art movements that sprung up—Expressionism, Dada, and soon Surrealism—were tinged with pervasive anxiety, and with an anarchist impulse to tear civilization down and start anew. Resentment simmered among a defeated and humiliated populace still licking its wounds. The wan Weimar Republic was the eye of a hurricane, providing Germans a chance to catch their breath, but premonitions of thunderstorms still to come hung heavy in the air. The old order was gone, and a new, more humane one was not yet on firm footing. This turbulent zeitgeist manifests itself in Holstenwall’s twisted streets and martial spires. Dangerous sharp edges are everywhere, waiting to snag the unwary. Caligari himself, in his guises as both a sideshow charlatan and a respected asylum director, was a symbol of men like Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm, leaders who manipulated the somnambulent populace into unconscious acts of murder by marching them off to war. Caligari was a reminder of the past, but also a warning for the future. Europeans had much worse to fear than an occultist hypnotizing sleepwalkers into stabbing sleeping maidens.

By recasting the original story, which carried more of an anti-authoritarian political message, as the ramblings of a madman, Wiene subverted the script’s original meaning; but, arguably, also improved it, changing social anxiety into existential terror. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari posits a world where nothing can be trusted: not authority, certainly, but not even the evidence of our own senses. Those curved banisters and jagged windows might not be real; they might just be the shadows of our own paranoia inked onto the scene. Caligari appears to be a deceiver; but what if we have invented him as our delusional scapegoat for our own problems? Maybe we invent cartoonish Caligaris to deflect from the things that really terrify us, like, say, pain, guilt, and mortality? How can we know for sure that the streets of Holstenwall really twist so capriciously, and are not just warped when we look at them through our own deformed personal lenses? Perhaps your own mind lies to you, and you are too far gone to know the difference. Such a possibility is even more frightening than the admittedly real threat of bad men manipulating us. If we follow radical subjectivity to its logical endpoint, we may all just be brains in a jar somewhere watching shadows on a cave wall that trick us into thinking we are madmen in an asylum dreaming of an alternate life. Maybe things are worse than we ever imagined. Maybe there is no here here.

Such fears had been expressed dimly in literature before, in the dreamily despairing worlds penned by Edgar Allen Poe, but until Caligari such nightmares hadn’t been literally created and exhibited before our very eyes. Made four years before René Clair’s “Entr’acte” (often called the first Surrealist film) and almost a decade before the explosive Un Chien Andalou, this is the brief nap of reason that birthed cinema’s subsequent nightmares. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first films I thought of when trying to delineate the “weird” aesthetic. It is entirely fortuitous and appropriate that this should be the final movie admitted into the canon of 366 weird movies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This story is coherent, logical, a genuine and legitimate thriller, and after one has followed it through several scenes the weird settings seem to be of its substance and no longer call disturbing attention to themselves.”–The New York Times, (contemporaneous)

“The audience, confined in the madman’s universe, sees what the madman sees: distorted perspectives, eerie painted lights and shadows, an angular, warped world of fears and menace…  the most complete essay in the décor of delirium…”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“Warped in all senses, fascinating and bizarre..  With all the weird gaping and gurning, and the distorted perspective of its expressionist sets, Caligari is a nightmarish cinematic extension of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, combining as it does romantic superstition with the supposedly rational world of psychiatric surveillance and control..”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (2014 screening)

IMDB LINK: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2014 restoration) (Blu-ray) – Kino Lorber Home Video – Kino Lorber’s page for their Blu-ray release

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari movie review – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ page has a brief background essay, some trivia, and hosts four film clips

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Basic info and links to FAQ-style articles about Dutch angles, Expressionism and perception of reality in film

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – Film Analysis – YouTube review/synopsis/analysis

From Caligari to Hitler: Imagining the Tyrant – Between the Lines – Kyle Kallgren analysis, inspired by the book of the same title

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film – One of the most famous and controversial works of film criticism ever written, Seigfried Kracauer argues that Caligari prophesied the rise of Fascism

HOME VIDEO INFO: As with most classic silent films, Kino Lorber’s edition (buy), available on Blu-ray only, is the standard. The 4K restoration was completed in 2014 from a variety of prints and looks amazing, although some minor specks and artifacts are left in for atmosphere. The primary score is a collaborative orchestral effort by the University of Music Freibeurg’s Studio for Film Music, and it’s effective and recommended. The alternate electronic score from DJ Spooky is not recommended; at times it seems like it was written without regard to the onscreen action. For example, it’s extremely laid back groove during a murder scene. And The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just doesn’t make me want to get up and shake my booty, no matter how sick the beats. Extra features include the new release trailer, trailers for other Kino Lorber classic releases, two examples of the restoration, and most significantly, the hour-long documentary Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema (made specifically to accompany this release). There are many other discs of this classic available, but Kino Lorber is the pick.

Since Caligari is in the public domain you can, of course, watch it on YouTube or other streaming channels. Here is one such version, with English intertitles and a good modern score composed by Donald Sosin that alternates between orchestral and synthesized music. Here is a downloadable version from the Internet Archive (with another good score by Timothy Brock). Plenty of other options exist.

6 thoughts on “366. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)”

  1. This review hits all the major historical and stylistic points to be made. (Quite concisely, too.) This was one of the first films I studied during my film school years (and oh how we pried into it), and the insights gained through that academia prompted me to pursue that particular degree. Even though I had seen it on numerous occasions before, and it Does stand on its own, I think it’s best appreciated with a decent grip of its production history and the socio-political climate of the time.

    I am not surprised to find this being the 366th, of course; the administrator’s avatar was a giveaway. Excellent choice, and I’m glad to see that the build up wasn’t a big tease.

    (To annoy the greatest amount of fans in the biggest way, choosing the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” could have blown a lot of fuses.)

  2. Bravo sir! A very fitting #366.

    I’ve really enjoyed this site immensely since I first discovered it a few years ago. I appreciate all the hard work from you and your contributors throughout the years.

    Now go and take a vacation!

  3. Clap…clap….great closer.

    How do you possibly acknowledge years of greatness and give the many contributors their just due?

    Answer: You can’t. You can only try, which is what I’m failing at, right now.

    Everyone, just know the global impact you have had on your many admirers, who love and respect you, and best of all, are champing at the bit to support you in your new endeavors to keep the 366 spirit alive.

    You’ve created a place on the internet that has filled a void experienced by many kindred souls. And for that, we are all eternally grateful.

  4. I agree totally that so much weirdness in cinema flows from this movie. Almost a century later it’s still exciting. I can say I was pretty astounded by the Kino Blu-ray. It was like seeing it for the first time.

    As a huge horror fan, considering that so many horror films today revolve around pure violence, gore and jump scares – I consider this movie to be the sing post for all the undervalued moods of horror that have gone underutilized for a LONG TIME: like dread and terror, the demented, the macabre, the grotesque and the bizarre. I think the character gestalt of Cesare the Somnambulist and the “twist” downer conclusion of the movie directly connects it to Night of the Living Dead.

    I’ve seen different DVDS of this and some of their commissioned scores are very good. The Kino international has two scores to chose from: Donald Sosin and another Rainer Viertblöck. The old Image Entertainment has a score by Timothy Brock. A theatre where I live plays Caligari every Halloween with live music. It would be wonderful if all these individual scores where available as streams (and challenge other musicians to make their own scores too!) so there would be this ultimate source of dozens of different scores that people could sync to the Kino Blu-ray!

    This definitely was the best choice to end the certified weird list because it puts your list into great historical context. In the internet age a person can view a list of something a dozen times a day. Film magazines themselves are ADDICTED to it. The 30 Top Ultimate Westerns; The 50 Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen!; 25 Cult Classics to Knock Your Socks Off; The One Hundred Best Teen Movies of All Time!

    Much of these one paragraph based lists are disposable. Not here though! Your 366 has so much blood and sweat in it. You’ve made something truly canonical that I think film buffs will keep returning to for the next half century of film.

    1. I love silent film scores, and I love the recent trend of new composers creating new scores for classic films. It’s sad that some of my favorites are not published separately. (Aidje Tafial’s Kino-commissioned score for L’inhumaine comes to mind.) Amazon music (subscription required) offers streaming scores for Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Regan Remy, Gideon Freudmann, In The Nursery, Zenzile, Cult With No Name, Scott Carr Jr., and Hobgoblin. Not Timothy Borck’s score, though, which seems to be the most popular (and is pretty good from the selections I’ve heard). That one is available on CD.

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