(Watch on Amazon Prime)
We’ve reached that point in movie history where, in the 2020s, we’re about to hit the first consistent string of major 100th Anniversaries. That starts with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which was released in Germany on February 26, 1920.
Prior to that year, Silent Film was largely driven by short form content. That’s one of several reasons why 1915’s The Birth of a Nation was such a breakthrough; at over three hours, D. W. Griffith‘s controversial epic shattered nearly every accepted convention as it redefined what cinema was capable of.
Those new possibilities started to become the norm in the next decade, as more and more films began to expand beyond thirty minutes or less to the feature length of sixty minutes or more, while also experimenting with the form itself. One of those landmarks came in early 1920 with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a hypnotic piece of Silent Horror that is still considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema.
Director Robert Wiene wields a surreal vision in his tale of a murder spree in the rural village of Holstenwall. At a town fair, one of the sideshows is run by Dr. Caligari, a fiendish man who controls his subject Cesare through somnambulism (a.k.a. sleepwaking). Cesare is the somnambulist (the sleepwalker) who awakens from a cabinet by Caligari’s conjuring. Hypnotized, Cesare predicts the future of anyone in the crowd who dares to ask.
Under dark of night, however, Caligari awakens Cesare to do an even more diabolical bidding: murder. This story is all told by Francis, a young man who bore witness to these events, as it is peaked by an attack on his eventual wife Jane.
Unfolding over a brief 67 minute run time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a daring display of artistry that completely rejected realism, embracing genre in a vision of macabre, ghoulish terror. (You could say that Robert Wiene was the Tim Burton of his day, but without the melancholy sentiment.)
With sets designed in strong canted angles and painted in brusque shades, the whole aesthetic of Caligari is gothic avant-garde, teeming with melodramatic performances to match.
It all culminates in the kind of twist ending that many filmmakers still try to pull off today (which must’ve made it an absolute jaw-dropper a century ago).
Even in its dated context, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a staggering work of pure cinema that future filmmakers will no doubt continue to be influenced by and aspire to, and one that any cinephile who’s dedicated to the history of the form should seek out and check off their must-see list. (Thankfully, Amazon Prime makes that easy for their subscribers.)
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