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):
Um, this is a silent film.
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Kino on Video DVD.