We Live 1001: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Audrey Fox tackles the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, now watching Robert Wiene's 1920 horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. We’ll be covering a new film on the list every week. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!

At this point in our journey, we take a brief break from DW Griffith’s tyrannical stranglehold over the early part of this list and move onto a German production from 1920: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One of the earliest horror films (and one of the first movies to feature a twist ending), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is part of a distinct art movement called German expressionism, born out of post-World War I disillusionment. Its influence on the art direction of this film is clear — each background features harsh, distorted angles that border on the grotesque, rejecting reality and evoking the imagery of a nightmare. The blending of this modern art movement with cinema would lead to one of the most visually unique periods in film history.

When Francis and Alan attend a local carnival, they encounter Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt, who would go on to emigrate to the United States and play several Nazi characters in Hollywood during World War II, including Major Strasser in Casablanca), who chillingly predicts that Alan will die by the morning. When his premonition comes true, Francis begins to follow Cesare, where he witnesses him abducting his fiancee Jane. He later sees Dr. Caligari at a psychiatric institution, where he is the director, purportedly obsessed with an 11th-century monk named Caligari and quite mad himself. But our framing story (and this film’s 101-year-old twist ending) reveals a different reality for both Francis and Caligari, one that reflects a growing mistrust of power structures in Germany as a result of the war.

And indeed, it is impossible to fully appreciate The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari without viewing it through a postwar lens. World War I started with sabers and cavalry charges and ended with tanks, poison gas, and machine guns. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other films coming out of Germany from this period depict the world as insane and devoid of reason. Can you trust what you see? The sets and art direction reflect a fractured, unstable mind and show how perspective can distort commonplace objects and scenery. 

The film uses this distorted view of the world to reflect the supposed madness of the main character, but this visual style is introduced in the framing story, which exists outside his supposedly warped version of events. With these stylistic choices, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari questions whether Francis is mad or if the entire world is. It embodies the raw psychological trauma experienced by all of Germany during World War I, a bloody wound left in the German psyche that would be reflected in an utter lack of faith in not just institutions but reality itself. The ambiguity of madness and sanity forces the audience to question what is real and who can you trust to make that determination?

If The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is filled with anxiety and a morbid preoccupation with death, it also has a surprising amount of rage directed at the German establishment. Dr. Caligari, who, as a medical professional, occupies a well-respected position in German society, forces a helpless sleepwalker to carry out murders on his behalf. We can easily interpret this as fury at the social elites who would send trusting young Germans to fight in a pointless war, kill for king and country, and effectively walk into a meat grinder of endless trench warfare. Cesare is a killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he is not the villain of the piece: our ire is reserved for Caligari, who manipulates Cesare to his own ends.

From a technical standpoint, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would greatly impact cinema for two main reasons. Its narrative structure, complete with a framing device and twist ending, further develops the complexity of storytelling that would be possible within the medium of film. Its set design and visual palette would heavily influence not just other expressionist films from Germany, but the horror movies we would see out of Universal throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and even film noir, with its shadowy, unsettling atmosphere. Any time you see a movie with dark, distorted imagery that just makes you uncomfortable like it’s somehow getting under your skin, there’s a little bit of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari there.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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