Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why See This...The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920]

With a month of horror movies ahead, I decided to start the month off right with a classic, one that is often considered the first horror movie ever made.

Think back to any of the mesmerizing and lucid worlds crafted by David Lynch or a psychological thriller from David Fincher, and it is certain that these two great directors watched, or more likely, scrutinized The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before making any one of their own.  For Lynch, the obvious influence comes from the bizarre setting and backdrop of this early German expressionistic film.  Taking place in the fictional quaint mountain village of Holstenwall Germany, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not set in some far off, distant land or even the future, as it may appear.  Though the director has placed the film into a seemingly normal German town, the subjectivity of its “realness” is certainly called into question.  Tilted walls, slanted rooftops appear as if a strong wind just came through the town and almost, just almost blew everything over.  The townspeople are real people inhabitating a real town, yet there is something just not right with how it all looks.  Holstenwall is surreal in every sense of the word.  With one glance, any avid David Lynch fan can recognize the obvious influence this movie has on the surreal and decrepit world of Eraserhead or even Inland Empire.  These movies deal with real people, yet the existence seems to take place somewhere far off from our thinking of reality. 

Inside the realm of a David Fincher thriller like Se7en or Fight Club, the characters of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are hardly molded caricatures.  This is really something considering the fact that we are dealing with a somnambulist and a mad scientist.  Short in stature, hunched back and always wearing a lab coat, Dr. Caligari looks like nothing else.  His counterpart, the stiff Frankenstein-like looking somnambulist named Cesare has been sleeping in a coffin for twenty three years and can tell the future.  At the arrival of the town fair, Caligari decides to display Ceasre as an exhibit.  Along with herds of people fascinated by the premise of the somnambulist, two friends arrive, Francis and Allen.  Upon learning his powers, Allen quickly shouts out to Ceasre asking how long he has to live.  The response: until dawn tomorrow.  Early the next morning Allen is dead, murdered in his own room.  Francis instantly puts the blame on Caligari and Ceasre.  But after an entire night perched outside their window, Francis finds nothing, expect that his has been abducted, all while the pair were sleeping.
Without the two to blame, there must be another murderer in the town.  Like any of Fincher’s psychological thrillers or the surreal worlds of David Lynch, nothing is ever what it appears to be, and the characters of this film, as they are nothing near caricatures, are the same.  Still not content with their alibi, Francis tails Dr. Caligari one day to find him enter an insane asylum.  Not only this, but he soon finds out that Caligari is the director of the institution as well.  Things start to become even more suspicious for Francis.   Questions arise, and everyone seems less sure about everything. 

The abstract d├ęcor of this movie cannot be stressed enough.  One would expect it to be quite appropriate for the insane asylum, but the slanted and jagged walls are found everywhere throughout the town.  The characters appear trapped in these tiny rooms no bigger than closets and ceiling heights barely reach six feet.  Ceasre towers over every character, standing like a giant in these rooms, but he too is probably not even six feet tall.  Even the outside landscape appears lifeless and barren.  Every tree branch and blade of grass is razor sharp as if it could cut a loaf of bread.  It is bizarre, haunting and claustrophobic.  One could go crazy

When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari came out, it defied just about every convention moviegoers were used to.  No longer did the camera just capture the splendor of our world and play it before our eyes.  Entire worlds could be created, haunting, surreal ones.  Worlds that we would not want to live in, but would much like to see.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is almost 100 years old and while the lack of sound, use of title cards and grainy film stock give away its age immediately, the movie was an innovative masterpiece for 1920, defining a national cinema and one of the most influential movements of the short film history, one that still find in theater to this day.



  1. I'm intending giving this ancient classic a watch in Oct, and at only an hour it's manageable. Interesting that it's considered the first horror movie ever made, wasn't aware of the atmosphere being surreal in this film.

    1. I totally recommend this. It being only an hour I think its a good movie for those who want a preview into the world of old silents.

      Its definitely not scary, but the settings being surreal and all are quite mesmerizing.

      Let me know what you think it if you decide to tune in.

  2. You've sold me with the Eraserhead comparison :) Count on a mini-review in my monthly recap

    1. Happy to hear that. I'll be waiting for it at the end of the month