Archive for Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Posted in Film, Horror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2010 by shesaidsvengali
Author’s Note:      

In an effort to help first time viewers to watch the film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, there will be no links included in this blog entry. If you are planning to view this film, I beg you, please don’t research it beforehand. While it might not entirely ruin the experience for you, I feel it will diminish it. There was a time when you could have a “cold viewing” and I am advocating a return to that type of viewership. Thank you.      

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - 1920


German expressionism is by and large my favorite movement in art. Prior to my discovery of this genre I was a card-carrying Surrealism fan, but after viewing Kirchner’s Self Portrait as a Soldier, I became enamoured of the German Expressionist Movement. To be fair, Kirchner’s painting was just a small part of a documentary I viewed in my Humanities class in college, but the image of the soldier with no hand has stayed with me. I was also pleased to discover that as well as painting and literature, film played a large part in the expressionist movement in Germany and wouldn’t you know it, some of my all time favorite films were expressionist films. The most beloved of these, is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.     

Made in 1920 by Robert Weine and starring Conrad Veidt Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is what you might call an exercise in intellectual intercourse. The film begins with a young man named Francis telling his elderly companion about the strange events that he and his fiancé, Jane, have experienced. Then a flashback sequence begins in which we meet Dr. Caligari, a mountebank, and his somnambulist, Ceasare, who make their living as a sideshow act. Ceasare’s eternal sleep allows him to see the future which Caligari capitalizes on in his sideshow act. Interested in what Ceasare might see in their future, Francis and his friend Alan go to the show, but quickly regret their curiosity when Ceasare informs Alan that he will die at dawn. Sadly, the prophesy is fulfilled and the rest of the film consists of Jane and Francis trying to get to the bottom of what is going on with Caligari and Ceasare.     

A set design from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"


While I hesitate to say much with regard to the plot of the film, I will comment on the aesthetic aspect of the film. I don’t know about you, but I love things that are visually engaging. That’s why I prefer Fox News to CNN, despite my left leaning philosophy. Fox is just more interesting to look at. Whoever is in charge of aesthetics over there is doing a really good job. I digress – my point here is that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is a beautiful, arresting, and engaging film. It’s silent, and I know that can be a tough sell for people who have never been exposed to such a thing, but I am confident that if you give it a try you won’t be disappointed.     

Dr. Caligari, Ceasare, and Jane


I discovered Caligari sometime between my junior and senior year in high school and I am still amazed that anytime I watch it, I seem to discover something new. What they were able to achieve with matte painting and set construction is astounding considering the limited resources and materials available at the time. The sets are arguably characters in their own right and do as much to tell the story as the actors themselves. As a matter of fact, the “performance” of the set is definitely more engaging than that of the protagonist. Of course, that could be because I like a bad guy and the environment in which the story unfolds is a bad guy if ever I met one.  I am transported anytime I am presented with even a still from this film. It has captured my imagination and it haunts my sleep as only a truly fine piece of art could. This world of Caligari is a dark demon lurking deep in your subconscious just waiting to be discovered.