Colossus of Rhode Island

1920-The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari | May 19, 2010

Colossus of Rhode Island image for Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from

Photo Credit

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a strange film.  Directed by Robert Wiene, the movie feels like a continuous dream sequence, highlighted by insanity, purposefully stylized sets, a somnambulist (that’s just a fancy way to say “sleepwalker”), and murder (that’s just a fancy way to say “killing someone”).  It is also the earliest one that I know of that features a “twist ending” (take THAT M. Knight Shyamaylan!).

Considered by some to be the quintessential expression of Expressionism (did you see what I did there?), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with the German Expressionism movement, had a great impact on future movies, particularly in the horror and noir genres. The historical significance of the Expressionism is important to highlight.   The movement was very short lived, beginning and ending in the 1920s.  It features dark themes, highly stylized visuals, and a disregard for reality or realism.  Many Expressionist filmmakers left Germany in the late ’20s and ’30s, bringing its influence to Hollywood.  Their visual composition, camera movements, and the ambience of their style permeated the early Universal Horror movies (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.).  A decade later, their use of sharp contrasts between light and dark and morally ambiguous characters would be a foundation of film noir.

This is an exceptionally interesting film visually, where characters walk through doorways with no 90-degree angles and trees look so fake they could have been used in an elementary school production (that doesn’t sound like a good thing, the way I wrote that, but trust me when I say that it works).  The plot revolves around a Dr. Caligari, who is part of a traveling show.  He presents the crowds with Cesare, a somnambulist who answers questions in his sleep (and is SO emo, he’s the fella in the middle in the photo above).  A crowd member asks Cesare how long he has to live and Cesare responds that the man will die that night.  When the man dies, his friends begin to suspect that things aren’t exactly copasetic with Cesare and Dr. Caligari and try to uncover what is really happening.

I was a little hesitant to make this the first movie that I discuss, because it certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is exceptionally interesting, the ending is truly surprising, and the movie itself has a great historical significance in cinema.

Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1920 that  are  worth seeing):

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore, features an absolutely amazing transformation scene and Barrymore used no makeup at all, he just ducked his head, mussed his hair, and contorted his face.  The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney Sr., has one of Chaney’s most painful costumes.  In order to play double amputee, he had his legs bound with his knees strapped into large cups (or small buckets, I don’t know).  Mark of Zorro, starring the immortal Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. is one of the first swashbuckling movies and maintains is vibrancy today.  The Saphead is the first full-length feature starring Buster Keaton, one of the greatest comedic talents in movie history.

Did you know?  (1920 Trivial Knowledge):

  • Caligari features a very young Conrad Veidt in one of his first film roles (after fleeing the Nazis to come to the U.S., Veidt’s best remembered role is one of his last, Nazi officer Major Strasser in Casablanca).
  • John Barrymore, a member of one of the greatest acting families in American history, was considered the greatest Hamlet since Edwin Booth, a member of one of the greatest acting families in 19th-century American history and brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth (Edwin Booth was a Lincoln supporter and once saved the life of Lincoln’s son).
  • Mark of Zorro was the first movie produced for United Artists, the creator-owned production company founded by Fairbanks, his wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith (at the time the four were greatest action star, America’s sweetheart, greatest comedic star, and most respected director, respectively).

Favorite Quote:

Um, this is a silent film.

Which DVD version did I watch?

The Kino on Video DVD.


Posted in Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. still one of the most beautiful films of all time.

    Comment by s.j. bagley — May 19, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

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About author

I write things...this thing that I'm writing and you're reading is a series of posts, starting with 1920 and focusing on a movie from each year that I think you should see.







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