In this silent 1920s masterpiece, an insane asylum inmate explains to his psychiatrist how he came to the institution, telling the shrink the story of the evil hypnotist Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his unwitting pawn, the sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt). This stark expressionist film from German director Robert Wiene astonishes with the power of its sets and visuals, and the creepy plot easily raises hackles on the back of one’s neck.
Rating: 10 out of 10
So you want a classic? Well, I have one for you. An oldie but very goody indeed. It is the 1919 German psychological horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” a very influential silent film full of dynamic terror and suspense. I say influential because upon watching it again I was reminded of how many current directors were and are still following the dramatic and visual uniqueness of this film. Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Martin Scorcese and even John Carpenter (In The Mouth of Madness, anyone?) to name a few. They owe a great deal to this movie.
It involves a mental facility patient named Francis who tells his Doctor about his chilling run in with a Carnival sideshow menace, Dr Caligari, and his attraction, the Somnabulist, Cesare. What makes this story fascinating is the use of the flashback to tell the story. It is one the earliest uses of this technique and it is very effective. This practice of the flashback reveals layer upon layer of German expressionist drama. Say what you will about this film being identified as everything from propaganda, wartime angst to social commentary, but it is still bold with it’s bluish and sepia toned nightmare. The more we witness the horror of Francis’ tale unfold the more we begin to sympathize with him — but in turn question his sanity. The ending will no doubt be seen as a classic and much used plot device, but this is the 1920’s so it was very fresh then.
Before I conclude I must talk about the visual impact of the film. It is nightmarish, bizarre and disorienting. There are stark angles. There are slanted streets and windows. Characters sit on very high stools and patterns and shadows are deep and trance-inducing. The camera work is of course a bit crude but it is intense and very sublime as we delve deeper and deeper into the madness that Francis reveals to his Doctor. I recall my film professor giving us this film to watch and absorb for homework. Let’s just say that it did not feel like homework. It felt more like a revelation. Highly recommended.