Note : this review is a contribution to The Silent Cinema blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
Dr. Caligari's somnambulist, Cesare, and his deadly predictions.
The "movement", in Cinema, is often citing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and the films of G.W. Pabst. But its influence was primary to Alfred Hitchcock’s early career, especially when he visited the sets of Murnau’s Faust and leaded to Hitch’s first big success : The Lodger. Another great director was hugely influenced by German Expressionism; Orson Welles and his entries in film noir. In fact, the film noir is the heritage that Hollywood inherited when many German directors flew out of Europe to escape from the rise of the Nazi party and the coming of the Second World War.
Let’s get back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and get a perspective of it within this little slice of History. With the peculiar costumes and decors this bizarre tale of Horror left a permanent mark into Films. Considered by many scholars as the first Horror movie of all time, it is a fact that when Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is shown for the first time on screen some women screamed of terror. Just like The Exorcist and the urban legend of people passing out during projections it demonstrates how the movie was efficient and provoked instant memories.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is by all standards a masterpiece and an essential film. If we had to make a definitive list of film canons Dr. Caligari would be on it. It is also important to highlight the fact that coming from Germany, it was also some kind of a metaphor on the fact that this country was frustrated from the defeat and the penalties from the First World War. Some readings of the film suggest that Germany was in need for a leader and even a dictator. Looks like Robert Wiene’s film was projecting a near future of autoritarism in Germany. Well, reality surpassed fiction.
In the same message, Fritz Lang and his series of Dr. Mabuse films was also announcing the coming of a leader of dictatorial scape. However, on the meanings of the film I suggest the excellent reading that is Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari to Hitler.
As I already mentioned before, the legacy of Dr. Caligari goes beyond German boundaries. But it also brought German productions back into studios and developed and formed all kind of crafts that are behind the camera from costumes to set designs. Making pre-Second World War German Cinema at the forefront of the film world. The quality of the productions of this era were influential on the films to come and have influenced greats like Ingmar Bergman.
As important as Dr. Caligari can be, it is also one of the most enjoyable silent films. With its unique sets and riveting story, it is not a deceiver that still holds a strong 100% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 8.1 star on IMDb.com. Silent films are often a hard sell and they may not please everyone or every crowd but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a sure entry point and an essential Horror movie.