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  • Writer's pictureAllan Major

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920 Reviewed

Updated: Apr 28

Featured Image for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920 Reviewed.  1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari film poster featuring somnambulist Cesare and Dr. Caligari in expressionist art style.
Step into the twisted dreamscape where Cesare prowls and Caligari reigns – the 1920 silent horror that started it all.

The eerie shadows of German Expressionism slither across the screen in Robert Wiene's 1920 masterpiece, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." This isn't simply a film; it's a descent into the crooked labyrinth of the psyche, an exploration of madness, authority, and the very nature of what we perceive as real. It's a film that lingers, its haunting images and unsettling themes burrowing into the mind long after the credits roll.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Key Takeaways

The power of visual storytelling:

  • The film's distorted, jagged sets and use of dramatic lighting and shadows make a stronger impact than realistic representations.

  • The film demonstrates how visuals can create mood, a sense of psychological unease, and convey themes and emotions without the need for extensive dialogue.

German Expressionism:

  • "Caligari" is a defining example of German Expressionist cinema. This movement emphasized the subjective emotional experience of characters over objective reality.

  • The film reflects the anxieties and disillusionment in Germany following World War I, as its distorted world may symbolize a society out of balance.

The nature of madness and authority:

  • The film questions who is truly insane - the manipulated somnambulist Cesare, the seemingly unhinged Dr. Caligari, or the supposedly "sane" society they inhabit.

  • The film raises questions about the dangers of unquestioned authority and the potential for exploitation of the vulnerable.

Unreliable Narration

  • The film's twist ending reveals that the story was told from the perspective of a mentally unstable character.

  • This forces the audience to reconsider the entire narrative and question what they believed was "real."

The legacy of the horror genre:

  • "Caligari" codified many visual and thematic elements of the horror genre, such as the eerie villain, the helpless victims, and a menacing atmosphere.

Terrified woman watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Her scream pierces the silence as the shadows of Caligari's twisted world envelop her.

Wiene's vision is one of stark contrasts and unnerving angles. The world of "Caligari" is a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, and grass that looks like knives. Expressionism, after all, wasn't about faithful replications of reality; it was about making visible the inner torments of the soul. The warped set design, the work of Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig, becomes a character itself, reflecting the broken minds and fractured realities of the film's inhabitants.

At the heart of this unsettling world lies Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a sinister showman with wild eyes and a penchant for the macabre. He travels with his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a gaunt figure who sleeps in a coffin-like box, only waking under the doctor's command. Cesare, they claim, has the power to predict the future – a power that draws in Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). But when Cesare's chilling prophecy of Alan's death comes true, a series of brutal murders cast a shadow of suspicion over the mysterious doctor and his somnambulist.

Veidt's Cesare is a silent scream etched in stark black and white. His movements are stilted and unnerving, his eyes ringed with darkness. He's a figure both tragic and terrifying, a symbol of the potential for manipulation and control lurking beneath the surface. Krauss, on the other hand, is all wild theatricality, embodying the chilling authority of a deranged mind.

Man terrified while watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Shadows whisper and madness lurks: A glimpse into 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' sends a chill down the spine.

A Silent Horror Film With An Amazing Visual Style

What makes “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” more than just a horror movie is its enduringly ambiguous nature. The film's twist ending casts a kaleidoscopic shift over everything we've seen before. Who is truly mad? Was it all an elaborate illusion? Is there ever a single authoritative point of view? The questions the film raises about the nature of reality are as chilling as any image of Cesare sneaking through the night.

Some might say "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" hasn't aged well, that its once-shocking expressionist style now feels familiar, even cliché. But its impact on popular culture is undeniable. From "Nosferatu" to the gothic horror of Tim Burton and modern films like "The Babadook," the long, distorted shadows of Caligari stretch across cinematic history. This is a film that helped shape the visual and thematic vocabulary of horror – the blueprint for countless psychological thrillers that followed.

In a world driven by spectacle and hyper-realism, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is a stark and vital reminder that true terror lies not always in things seen, but rather in the shadows they cast on our perception of the world. It's a film that demands to be experienced, not just watched. Let it seep into your subconscious; grapple with its distorted reality. As with any nightmare worth its salt, it will stay with you long after the lights come back on.

And that was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920 Reviewed. Another great classic horror movie.

For more great horror movie reviews check back soon. 

If You Liked The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari You Might Also Like These Films

  • Nosferatu (1922): Another landmark of German Expressionist cinema, directed by F.W. Murnau. This unauthorized adaptation of Dracula features a chilling performance by Max Schreck as the monstrous Count Orlok. Its haunting visuals and nightmarish atmosphere echo the unsettling world of "Caligari.

  • Metropolis (1927): Fritz Lang's science fiction masterpiece explores themes of social division, mechanization, and the dangers of unbridled power. Its visually stunning depiction of a dystopian future, with towering skyscrapers and oppressed workers, shares the expressionist aesthetic and social commentary found in "Caligari."

  • M (1931): Another Fritz Lang masterpiece, this time a chilling crime thriller about the hunt for a child murderer in Berlin. While grounded in a more realistic setting than "Caligari," its use of shadow, sound, and suspense create a similar sense of psychological dread and social unease.

  • Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock's iconic horror film delves into the twisted mind of a seemingly normal man. The shocking twists and exploration of disturbed psychology may appeal to viewers intrigued by the unreliable reality and dark themes of "Caligari".

  • The Babadook (2014): This modern Australian horror film draws upon the expressionistic techniques of silent cinema. It portrays a mother's descent into madness as a terrifying storybook monster seemingly comes to life. Similar to "Caligari", it questions the boundaries between mental anguish and external threat.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920 Reviewed FAQs

Q: Who directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

A: The film was directed by Robert Wiene. He was a prominent figure in German Expressionist cinema and this film is widely considered his masterpiece.

Q: When was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari released?

A: The movie was released in 1920, during the Weimar Republic period of Germany, a time of significant artistic and cultural experimentation.

Q: Is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a silent film?

A: Yes, it is a silent film. It uses intertitles (text cards inserted between scenes) to convey dialogue and offer some narration, a common technique in the era before synchronized sound in movies.

Q: What is the significance of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in film history?

A: It is considered the first true horror film and a landmark in German Expressionist cinema. Its groundbreaking visual style, with distorted sets, heavy makeup, and dramatic lighting, had a profound influence on subsequent horror, film noir, and even avant-garde filmmaking techniques. The film's psychological themes and exploration of madness were also ahead of their time.

Q: Who are some of the notable actors in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

A: Some of the most notable actors in the film include:

  • Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari, the enigmatic and potentially sinister hypnotist.

  • Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the somnambulist (sleepwalker) under Caligari's control. Veidt became a major star of German cinema and later had a successful career in Hollywood.

  • Friedrich Feher as Francis, the film's protagonist who investigates Caligari and Cesare.

  • Lil Dagover as Jane, Francis's love interest.

Q: Where can I find reviews of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

A: You can find reviews on platforms like IMDb and other film review websites. Additionally, resources like:

  • Rotten Tomatoes: Aggregates reviews from professional critics.

  • Offers reviews and essays by renowned critic Roger Ebert and other contributors.

  • The Criterion Collection: Provides in-depth essays and analysis for the films they include in their collection.

Q: What is the twist at the end of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

A: To avoid spoilers, I won't directly give away the twist but it fundamentally changes the understanding of the film's events and the relationships between the characters. The film is known for its unreliable narration and the twist forces viewers to reconsider everything they thought they knew.


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