If you are a fan of horror and its history then you will know that the 1920’s silent movie Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari better known as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari occupies a very important place being as it is believed by many to be one of the first true horror films.
Although credited as shocking every audience that saw it and changing the course of the cinematic art form one of the most amazing things about watching this film which is now 94 years old is how accessible and modern it feels.
The story opens with a young man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) telling a college the strange story of his experience at a local carnival in his home town. Gripped with excitement the small hamlet was over taken by circus acts but one amongst them stood out above all others, the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist Cesare (Casablanca’s Conrad Veidt).
The show involves Dr. Caligari waking the strange Cesare whom he keeps in a coffin like cabinet from his deep trance to predict the future of someone from the entranced audience. As the crowd watches Francis friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) asks how long will he live and is chillingly told he will die that very night.
As darkness falls Cesare’s prediction comes true and the police are confounded by the brutal murder and begin to chase a suspect however Francis fears the truth behind the slaying is much more disturbing and that Dr. Caligari is at the center of it all.
A full two years before the iconic Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau German director Robert Wiene and the amazing creative team behind the film not only invented several story telling tropes such as the frame story but have heavily influenced directors of all genre’s especially film noir, gothic cinema and horror ever since.
Although a current audience may find the language of silent cinema which includes a cue cards, limited shots and lack of close ups at first jarring it doesn’t take long to be transformed into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari due to the excellent score and heavy stylization of the films sets and acting which wonderfully compliment the atmosphere and mood of the film.
Deeply psychological in its story and themes there is a tense nightmare like ambiance running through the movie emphasized by the jerky and over exaggerated acting especially of Caligari himself whose twisted wicked features betray the evil lying underneath the showman’s exterior perfectly counterbalanced by his nearly mute sleeping slave who performs his every bidding.
The sets are stunning, dropping any pretense of reality for Expressionist style disjointed structures with warped doors that jut at odd angles and evoke the landscape of a dream. This all perfectly ties in to the ideas of madness and mind control that dominate the movie and the ominous suspension of conformation to what is real and what is fantastic also found in the famous works of fellow German author E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Eureka have done an amazing job in their high definition restoration filling the Masters of Cinema release with extras including audio commentary by film historian David Kalat and a new 52 Minute documentary on the film among other great bonuses celebrating this important piece of cinematic history.
As mesmerizing and captivating today as it was in 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a visually stunning and creatively creepy tale of terror that has more than earned its place as a vital moment in the creation of horror movies as we know them.