I’d like to say that I am such a sophisticated cinephile, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was on my must- watch list for ages. The truth, I did not know the film existed until watching an episode of the show “Portlandia.”
In the episode, Carrie’s film buff mailman insists that she must watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in order to truly understand cinema. After a few false starts, Carrie finally succumbs to the German Expressionist film only to find herself cursed.
Carrie must now wake at 4 am six days a week to deliver the mail until she can convince the next unsuspecting film fan to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I won’t watch gory horror flicks, but a silent horror film that could potentially curse me, not a problem.
Debuting in 1920, the German Expressionist film, directed by Robert Wiene, is considered one of the first, if not the first horror film. Though it’s certainly thrilling, with a heaping dose of creepy, I’d say the scares are tame compared to today’s horror masterpieces. I bet it still frightened the bejesus out of movie goers back in the day though.
In the movie, a happy- go- lucky young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), discovers his life has been turned upside-down after his quiet mountain village is visited by a fair. Francis’ best friend is murdered, and his angelic, virginal fiancé is abducted, and found, but only after she has descended into madness. Francis is determined to get to the bottom of these horrific acts. His prime suspect, a traveling showman from the fair named Doctor Caligari (Werner Krauss) and Caligari’s perpetually sleeping, stored in a cabinet, sideshow freak, Cesare (Conrad Veidt).
I fell in love with Caligari’s strange, two dimensional sets. The sets appear to be something out of a Tim Burton film, before Burton ever existed.
Cesare’s look, as well, has been compared to Edward Scissorhands, though I couldn’t get the image of beatnik Audrey Hepburn from the movie Funny Face out of my head.
The music used in the film is intriguing. Instead of the ominous strings often used as the accompaniment to horror movies, Caligari uses an experimental jazz score with lots of dissonant horns and piano. At times it almost feels too upbeat and jazzy for such a macabre story.
I feel that the silent, shot in black and white, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, still holds up today. Said to be an indictment of post World War I German authority, the plot is interesting, and offers a few twists and turns along the way.
Alan’s murder scene, shot in shadow, and free of blood splatter and guts, is not terrifying by today’s standards. It is however disturbing enough to make a viewer’s heart beat a little faster. Caligari and Cesare are eerie enough to make you not want to encounter them in a dark alley.
The movie is a definite must watch for horror fans as well as true cinephiles. It is easy to find for free on most streaming networks or YouTube, and I promise I’m not just trying to convince you to watch it so that I can pass the curse of Dr. Caligari on to you.