The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Let's begin our look at classic horror with the oldest film on this list--The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Synopsis - Spoilers Included

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with two men sitting on what looks like a park bench. The older man begins a yarn about spirits driving him from his home and family but as a young woman walks by, seemingly oblivious to the men's presence, the younger man begins his own tale, which he promises will be stranger than the old man's ghost story.

In the past, the younger man, whom we learn is named Francis, lives in the village of Holstenwall, where he and his friend Alan are planning to attend the town's yearly fair. The fair's organizers promise an extravagant event.

Setting up at the fair is a man who calls himself "Caligari", and who promises a "spectacle" involving a somnambulist. Caligari's sleepwalking spectacle is soon revealed to be a man named Cesare, who has been asleep for his entire life--twenty-three years.

Meanwhile, the little village suffers a crime wave. The town clerk, who was less than polite to Caligari when the old man attempted to get a permit for his booth, is found murdered in his sleep. He was, we learn, stabbed a single time with a "strange pointed instrument".

Back at the fair, Caligari wakes Cesare, who sleeps upright in a narrow wooden cabinet. Cesare's eyes open and he steps tentatively from his cabinet.

Caligari welcomes the crowd to ask questions of Cesare, who, Caligari claims, knows all about the past and sees the future. Alan, over Francis' fearful objections, asks "How long will I live?" Cesare tells him that he will die at the break of dawn the next morning. Francis and a visibly shaken Alan leave.

On the way home, our young friends run into Jane, whom both Francis and Alan love. The doe-eyed men agree between themselves to leave the choice up to Jane and remain friends, regardless of whom she ultimately chooses to marry.

That night Alan is attacked and murdered by a man wielding a long, pointed object.

Police attention quickly turns to a local miscreant, who is caught trying to murder an elderly townswoman. He confesses to the attempted killing and explains that he intended to stage the act to shift blame to the original murderer. He denies any involvement with the murders of Alan and the clerk.

Despite the evidence against the suspect, Francis, who remember's Cesare's prophecy, suspects Caligari and enlists the help of Jane's father to investigate.

Meanwhile, Jane goes looking for her father and winds up at Calgary's booth. Caligari wakens Cesare for her but she, terrified, runs from the booth. That evening Cesare breaks into Jane's bedroom and abducts her. In the ensuing rescue attempt, Cesare is chased to exhaustion by the townspeople and dies.

Francis is puzzled. "It couldn't have been Cesare," he tells Jane's father, "Because I was watching him sleep in his box in Caligari's caravan trailer."  He goes to the police, who assure him that the kidnapper couldn't have been the man they have in custody, either, because that fellow is still locked in his cell.

The police finally visit Caligari and open Cesare's box. Inside they find a life-size doll of Cesare. Caligari attempts to escapes but Francis chases him onto the grounds of an asylum. There, Francis learns that Caligari is actually the director of the asylum. Horrified, Francis runs from the office.

Francis tells his bizarre story to the asylum's doctors, who place Caligari under observation. Francis and the doctors then rummage through the sleeping director's office until they discover that he is obsessed with an Italian mystic named Caligari, who also used a sleepwalker named Cesare to murder his victims. They learn that the original Caligari used a life-size puppet of his Cesare to deflect attention, should anyone suspect them of their grisly crimes.

Having retrieved Cesare's body, Francis and the doctors confront the director. The grief-stricken man attempts to escape but is forced into a straightjacket and dragged away.

Back in the present, the two men in the park are still sitting on their bench. As Francis finishes his tale, the older man stands to leave. They return to the common room of the asylum where "Jane" and "Cesare" are being attended to by asylum staff.

Why The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari Is A Must-See Film

Though Caligari deeply divided the world's film critics when it was released--and, yes, film critics had well-sharpened teeth even in 1920--it is today almost universally lauded as a film that revolutionized storytelling in moving pictures. It is widely regarded as the example of German Expressionism and is certainly the best known of that genre.

Caligari is also notable as a film that changed how German films were made for years to come. It popularized the practice of shooting in dedicated film studios, as opposed to shooting on location. This, in turn, prompted the development of film design theories.

But Caligari's most last legacy might just be its use of light and shadow to "cue" the audience about a particular character's mood, sanity and moral proclivities. The effect of that technique is seen even today.

Lisa's Favorite Scene

I don't know if Caligari was actually the first film to exploit the "twist" ending, as many film journalists have claimed, but the ending is truly stunning. I can only imagine the effect it must have had on filmgoers a century ago.

But two other scenes stick out for me. The first is the scene in which Francis learns of Alan's death. It is impeccably acted but something about Francis' facial expressions tells us that he might not be quite as devastated by his romantic rival's death as he should be.

The second scene is the one in which Francis meets the asylum's director and recognizes him as Caligari. It was beautifully acted and provides the first real surprise of the film.

Closing Thoughts On The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Like most silent films, Caligari is a tough watch for serious horror fans. It has, in my opinion, lost much of its punch and pays an especially high price for its filmmakers' insistence on utilizing the expressionist style.

Still, Caligari is worth seeing. It is one of the few surviving films that can legitimately claim to have changed filmmaking forever and is, of course, the film against which all other German Expressionist films are now compared.
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