This film is one of the most important and influential titles ever made. Generations of filmmakers have been influenced by its content, as well as its unique art style. The horror and film noir genres can trace their roots back to this film. Not only is it extremely influential, but it remains a watchable and entertaining viewing experience. I am talking about “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the 1920 silent German classic from director Robert Wiene. While film historians and critics have written endlessly about its influence on the horror genre, it tends to get overlooked by horror fans. Hence, making it a Hidden Horror.
Film opens on a young man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér), who is sitting on park bench next to an elderly man. As they are talking, a beautiful, young lady walks by. Francis tells the man she is Jane (Lil Dagover) his fiance, and he begins to tell him a story about a strange & traumatic event that happened to the both of them.
One day a carnival came to Francis’ home town of Holstenwall, and one of the many attractions was a showman named Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist (sleepwalker) Caesar. Francis and his friend Alex (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) go check out this attraction. Caligari tells the crowd that Ceasar can predict the future, and they can ask him any question they want. Alex asks him when he will die. Casear tells him he has until nightfall, and that prediction comes true. After the murder of his friend, and the attempted murder of Jane, Francis decides to investigate these events for himself and see if Caligari and Cesar are behind it. However, the truth is more strange and unexpected than Alex can believe.
It’s impossible to talk about “Dr. Caligari” without mentioning the art direction. As Roger Ebert said, it’s “the first thing everyone notices and best remembers” about the film. Here are some stills from the film to give you an idea of the art direction. To give you some cultural context: It’s a prime example of German Expression, an early 20th century art form that developed after the first World War.
There are bizarre angles, radical distortions, staircases at crazy angles, an emphasis on shadows, and painted backgrounds just to use a few adjectives. Film as an art form was in its infancy at this time, and many filmmakers tried to capture reality. Caligari, however set it self apart by creating a world with its own geometric logic. The Expressionists favored exaggerations and unrealism. The art direction has gone on to influence many a filmmaker. One of my favorite films of all time, Richard Elfman’s bizzaro cult classic “Forbidden Zone,” has a Caligari-esque influence in places, particularly with the painted backgrounds.
Many of Tim Burton’s films are very much influenced by Caligari’s style. Here is another example to give you an idea of how influential this style is. For the 2005 remake of “Dr. Caligari” several scenes from the original were superimposed behind the actors. The fact that they used old footage rather than use new sets says something, doesn’t it?
“Caligari” is also influential in another way; it’s considered to be the first film to introduce the twist ending. Not only did it introduce the twist ending, “Caligari’s” specific ending is still imitated to this day. I would give you an example of a recent film that uses the ending, but that would be a spoiler and I don’t want to ruin the film. In some films, this ending comes across as cliche. Just keep in mind, this film was the first one to do it. In addition, the ending works well in context of the story. Also worth noting that it is one of the first films to use the flashback as a form of narration.
As I mentioned earlier, Roger Ebert described “Caligari” as the first true horror film. There are most certainty elements of Caligari that have bled over into the horror genre: killings, kidnappings, and a general emphasis on darkness. One of my favorite shots in the film is Alex’s murder. You see the struggle and the eventual stabbing through the characters’ shadows. However I wouldn’t call “Caligari” a straight up horror film. It definitely has more a thriller vibe to it. You can definitely see the influence this had on film noir. Film critic Scott Weinberg called the film one of the great-grandfathers of the horror genre. I would say, in a general sense, it is one of the great-grandfathers of films dealing with darker subject matters.
Film critics have tried to ascribe some sort of deeper meaning to the film. German critic Siegfried Kracauer said in his 1947 book “From Caligari to Hitler” that Caligari was meant to represent Hitler and Ceasar is the general public that carries out his crimes. Other critics have made similar arguments about the film representing the darkness and desparity Germany felt Post World War I. Those arguments certainly can be made, and are valid in their right. However I feel the film is best enjoyed on a surface level.
For as influential a movie as Caligari is, some of you may be asking yourself, is the film still worth watching? Very much so. It’s a quick, breezy watch and is a very suspenseful and satisfying experience. If you love horror movies as much as I do, then you for sure will need to check out this film. Here is where you can see the makings the genre we know and love. If you love and appreciate silent films, then this one you need to see. If you like Tim Burton, this is worth checking out as you can see where he gets his influence. If you want to get into silent films, this might be a good place to start as it doesn’t feel very dated. Best way I can describe this film, it’s old school but not dated if that makes any sense. Watching this is like playing an old Atari 2600 game, there is a charm and an innocence that can be duplicated, but never imitated.