Dr. Caligari, Hypnotist-At-Large. Image: The Austin Chronicle

Warning: Spoilers!

If you’re in the mood for a truly bizarre film, then you’re come to the right place.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is a legendary German horror film with an unreliable narrator and nightmarish sets. It could be one of the strangest films you’ve (n)ever seen.

It’s a haunting, twisted story about a hypnotist (Werner Krauss), a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt), and mysterious murders.

Krauss plays a carnival hypnotist, who arrives in a small German town to exhibit somnambulist Veidt as part of the annual fair. Krauss-as-Caligari presents THE MIRACULOUS CESARE who has slept for his entire 23 years, “day and night!” He announces Cesare “will awaken from his death-like trance before [your] very eyes!”

He opens the coffin (cabinet) that holds the sleeping Veidt. “Cesare, can you hear me?!” he cries. “Cesare, I am calling you. I, Dr. Caligari, your master. Awaken for a moment from your dark night.”

Veidt’s face twitches, and his eyes slowly open. Dr. Caligari declares, “Cesare knows every secret. Cesare knows the past and sees the future.”

It proves to be a popular attraction, especially when the somnambulist identifies an audience member who will die within the next 24 hours – and does.

But this isn’t the first murder victim. That honour belongs to the town clerk, who made the hypnotist wait to submit his carnival application. The clerk, poor slob, laughed at the notion of a somnambulist, then fobbed the application onto a subordinate.

Notice the distorted angles. Image: Walker Art Centre

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is regarded as one of the first horror films. It explores revenge, manipulation, and madness. It was filmed in the aftermath of WWI, during a time of national pain and humiliation for Germany.

Consider the moment: it is 1920, and recovery from the war has been slow. As the Weimar Republic adjusts to peacetime, Berlin recoils. Power is still out in much of the city. Returning troops and refugees flood the streets, and markets are short on food. Unlike the war to follow…World War I had no clear moral or political objective; to the contrary, the internecine conflict emerged from a series of geopolitical alliances turned sour, aligning the interests of the wealthy, ruling elite with the colonial state—at the expense of a generation.

Mad Berlin: Revisiting Dr. Caligari in the Wake of Fascism, Walker Art Museum Magazine

There are layers of horror in this film, starting with the sets that are both cartoon-y and nightmarish. Angles are odd, confusing, claustrophobic.

This is a silent film, so we never hear the characters’ voices, as though their words are caught in their throat.

Everything is designed to keep you off kilter, even the appearance of the characters. Veidt-as-Cesare wears heavy, creepy makeup, and, although Krauss is a rotund fellow, there’s menace in his black cape and piercing eyes.

The seemingly random, nighttime murders are troubling, especially for the hapless townspeople.

Then there’s Dr. Caligari himself, who, as it turns out, is the director of an insane asylum. The good doctor has patiently waited for a somnambulist to be admitted to his institution so he could further his research – and Even The Score with enemies at the same time.

All of this would be frightening enough, but there is a deeper terror here, and that is the power Dr. Caligari holds over those in the asylum.

Here is an authority figure preying upon the vulnerable, “programming” a man to commit murder. (Notice he calls himself Cesare’s “Master”.) Caligari uses the defenceless for his own nefarious purposes, something we all fear.

Even though we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, we know this to be true: The powerful take advantage of the powerless. This is a historical and universal constant.

Conrad Veidt as the somnambulist Cesare. Image: San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The genius of this film lies in overcoming one of its greatest obstacles: money. The film was shot in an atelier studio in Berlin which means, according to Wikipedia, the sets measured about twenty square feet.

Canvas was used for the sets, with painted-on light, shadows, and landscapes. Shapes are stylized for extreme emotional effect, which makes this film not only a pioneer in the horror genre, but also in German Expressionism.

We hope you’ll see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It is a Silent, but these sixty-seven minutes will keep you mesmerized.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari: starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher. Directed by Robert Wiene. Written by Karl Meyer & Hans Janowitz. Decla-Bioscop AG, 1920, B&W, 67 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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