The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari] (1920)
Starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger
Directed by Robert Wiene
Expectations: Very high. I’ve seen pieces of this many times.
The film begins with an older, visibly shaken man telling a younger man about how the spirits all around have driven him out of his home. A wide-eyed women dressed in a flowing white gown emerges in the background and slowly walks up to and past the men without stopping or looking their way. My first thought was that this was a ghost, a representation of what the older man was talking about. But then the younger man says, “That is my fiancee. What she and I have lived through is stranger still than what you have lived through…” So this girl with the blank stare isn’t a ghost, huh? Oh… well, I guess we’re in for a wild story then!
And it’s a story that doesn’t disappoint. That’s not to say everyone will naturally gravitate towards this one, but if you’re at all interested in the foundation of the horror genre or classic film in general, this is a must see. As one of the premiere examples of the German Expressionist film movement, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari holds many wonderful delights, most notably in its set design. Instead of looking normal, everything is skewed and distorted. I don’t know what the traditional interpretation of this is, but my take on it is that because our main character is telling us his story — one of unforgettable peril and terror — his memories of it aren’t exactly perfect. Or maybe we’re seeing the story by venturing inside his head and living inside his fractured memories. Or, better yet, perhaps we’re seeing the story through the imagination of the older man who’s hearing it, creating the visuals in his head from the twisted details given to him by our main character. Whatever it is or was supposed to be, the sets create a fantasy landscape that continues to inspire and influence filmmakers today.