By Steve D. Stones
This landmark 1919 German expressionistic film may be difficult for contemporary audiences to view because of the heavy handed digital effects of today’s movies, but it is well worth the effort. The film relies heavily on psychological horror effects, gestural movement of actors and flatly painted, angular sets that give the film an unrealistic and surreal feeling.
Based on an 11th century myth of a mountebank monk, a carnival hypnotist named Dr. Caligari arrives in a German town to exhibit his walking somnambulist, who has been asleep in a coffin for over 20 years. The somnambulist, played by German actor Conrad Veidt, has the ability to predict when carnival attendants will die. He predicts that a local man named Alan will die. That night Alan is murdered in his bed. His death is revealed through a brilliant use of silhouette and shadows projected on the wall above him, avoiding any graphic horror.
Alan’s friend Francis, who is the narrator and protagonist of the film, is convinced that the somnambulist killed Alan. He sets out to prove that Caligari and his act are responsible for Alan’s death and the deaths of other locals. The viewer is lead through a number of sets that emphasize shadows and hard-edged angularity. Francis’ investigation leads to a mental institution where he discovers that Dr. Caligari is the head doctor of the institute.
In a complete switch of plot, the film ends with Francis being fitted with a straight-jacket by Dr. Caligari at the mental institute. The viewer realizes that Francis is insane and that his story has been a fabrication of his mentally twisted mind. The hard-edged, angular sets are symbolic of Francis’ insane mind. His role as the protagonist is now questioned by the viewer.
Critics of Caligari in 1919 felt that the somnambulist was a symbol of mindless European soldiers marching off to war to kill without question. The film was banned in a number of U.S. cities and European countries. Some film historians have labeled Caligari as the first ever “cult film.”
The influence of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” on contemporary artists and filmmakers cannot be overstated. Rob Zombie’s 1998 MTV video “Living Dead Girl” is a complete homage and reenactment of Caligari. Caligari’s influence can also be seen in many Tim Burton films, such as “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Corpse Bride,” “Beetlejuice,” and others. “Edward Scissorhands” looks similar to the somnambulist character in Caligari, particularly his movements and gesturing.
If you have not seen “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” I highly recommend it as part of your movie viewing this Halloween Season. Caligari makes a great double-feature with another German-Expressionist silent classic – “Nosferatu” (1922). Both films have been digitally remastered and can be purchased by Kino Lorber International Video. Beware of cheap public domain prints of “Caligari” and “Nosferatu” for sale. These prints cut important scenes and have poor image and sound quality. Happy Halloween!!