Directed By: Robert Wiene
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Tag line: "A THRILLING FANTASTIC PHOTO-PLAY"
Trivia: Producer Erich Pommer wanted to have Fritz Lang as the film's director. Lang was interested, but then decided to work on another film
With its brooding ambiance and distorted set designs, the 1920 German Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, became the standard by which all horror films that followed it would be measured.
The carnival is in town, and a mysterious entertainer named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) has just applied for permission to erect a display for his very unusual act. Professing to be a hypnotist, Caligari works with a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a man he claims has been under his hypnotic control for over 20 years. More than this, whenever Cesare is temporarily awakened from his perpetual slumber, he's able to see into the future. Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), who’s visiting the carnival with his good friend, Francis (Friedrich Feher), puts Cesare to the test, asking the woozy sideshow attraction how much longer he has to live. Cesare’s chilling response is that Alan will die by daybreak. When Cesare’s prediction comes true, and Alan is, indeed, found dead the next morning, Francis sets out to prove that Caligari, with the help of his ‘accomplice’, Cesare, murdered Alan during the night. Yet while collecting evidence to support his accusations, Francis uncovers something quite revealing about his own bizarre nature as well.
The world as it exists in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is exceedingly dark, and presented at sharp angles to enhance the dream-like atmosphere its story demands. One of the film’s most striking images is that of Cesare carrying the unconscious Jane (Lil Dagover), the love of Francis’ life, along the city’s crooked rooftops, surrounded on all sides by twisted chimneys branching off in many directions. In this scene, and others like it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari presents its macabre view of the world, creating a place where fantasy and reality collide.
Along with its unforgettable set pieces and warped sensibilities, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also features a surprising twist at the end, a plot device that, while common nowadays, was undoubtedly something its 1920 audience had never seen before. It's this combination of story and style that lifts The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the lofty heights of a nightmarish masterpiece, a position it still holds today, and likely will for many years to come.