Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (1920)

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (1920)

“I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret. I must become Caligari!”

A high-strung youth (Friedrich Feher) relates the story of mad Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his sideshow act, a gaunt somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) named Cesare who commits murders while sleepwalking. But is Dr. Caligari really who Feher says he is?


Response to Peary’s Review:
In his analysis of this indisputable “masterpiece of the silent cinema”, Peary notes that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first film to advance “the theory that what goes on in the mind, psychological horror, can be as frightening as physical shocks” — and that “one could express the emotional and/or mental states of characters through the design of the sets they walk through.” To that end, nothing looks real here; the “backgrounds are obviously painted” and “everything… zigzags at odd angles so that the frame looks out of whack”, giving one the impression of watching an Expressionistic play rather than a film.

Apart from its truly unique sets, what’s most distinctive about Caligari is its twisted narrative structure, in which our comprehension of what we’re seeing is continually shaken; a quick glance at the genres listed above indicates that this short film goes in many different directions throughout its scant hour-plus running time. There’s essentially a story within a story within a story here; to that end, Caligari is a film which nearly demands multiple viewings in order to “get” what exactly is happening. Indeed, Peary notes that Caligari was likely “the first ‘cult’ movie”, given that it played “in one French theater for seven consecutive years” — for this reason alone, no film fanatic can afford to miss it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Surreal Expressionist set designs
    CODC Visuals
  • Conrad Veidt as Cesare the Somnambulist
    CODC Veidt
  • The classic kidnapping sequence
    CODC Kidnapping
  • A groundbreaking script (by Hans Janowitz), which posits that what’s seen on-screen isn’t necessarily “real”
    CODC Script
  • The shocking twist-upon-twist ending
    CODC Ending

Must See?
Yes, most definitely. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 (1988).


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (1920)

  1. Absolutely a must and, yes, a real masterpiece of silent cinema.

    Aside from what’s pointed out in the assessment, I believe its bizarre design – of no fixed period, really – is what keeps the film from aging badly and freezes its nightmare quality. All told, this cult classic remains modern, fresh, and is yet another one of those ‘the-less-you-know-about-it-the-better’ films.

    ‘Cabinet’ also has remarkably little dialogue. Since that’s the case, you may – on repeat viewings – want to experiment with various soundtracks of your own design to see what kind of different experience you can come up with.

    Best line for a gay crowd: “We queens – are not permitted to follow the dictates of our hearts.”

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