The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
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Streaming services these days are ubiquitous. Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Disney Plus, Prime Video—the list just goes on and on. It's hard to imagine a world without it, but not that long ago, none of these services existed. You don't even have to go back as far as VHS (or before) days to reach a point where streaming video just wasn't a thing.
YouTube didn't get started until 2005, and Netflix streaming didn't get going until 2007. Before all these streaming services began, companies were experimenting with new ways to deliver film and TV to people. There was a brief transition period between the heyday of in-person rentals at Blockbuster and the simple streaming services we know today—a relatively short period of time when you could log onto a website and have rental DVDs sent straight to your home via Netflix, Blockbuster, and even Walmart. Outside the USA, similar services cropped up and subsequently disappeared, like Zip.ca, In-Movies.com, Quickflix, and many others.
It was during this brief period that I binged a metric shit ton of old silent films. Prior to DVD by mail, many old silent films were hard to find, especially for rentals. The in-person rental stores like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video had limited shelf space and stocked things they thought or knew would be a hit in the local markets. They had little reason to make old, relatively obscure films available on their precious shelf space.
I'd heard of a lot of old silent films—mainly just the names—but never had a chance to check them out. So, back in the Netflix DVD days, I was surprised when browsing their catalog one day to find a whole collection of them hit their rental services—many of them early horror. I did what any horror fanatic would do and blew through their entire collection of old films in a very short time.
There are a lot of great movies from the silent film era, but one that really stood out to me was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
I didn't know much about it then, but watching it drew me into a sort of dream state. The art style and story are fascinating and quite unusual for the time. Today, the film has been researched enough that entire books could be written about it. Given that there's so much to be unpacked, I'm simply going to provide an overview of some aspects of the film and hopefully spark your interest in giving it a watch and digging deeper yourself.
Warning: some spoilers ahead.
Let's Explore: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
On February 26, 1920, in Germany, a film premiered that forever changed the face of movies.
The plot seems relatively straightforward. Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist, has control over a man named Cesare.
Cesare is a somnambulist (sleepwalker).
Dr. Caligari keeps Cesare in a cabinet that looks like a coffin, sometimes bringing him out to perform a little sideshow to tell people's fortunes.
The story follows two men attending the fair to see Dr. Caligari's sideshow. One of the men asks Cesare how long he will live, and Cesare replies that the man will die at dawn.
As foretold, the man dies at dawn—murdered in his bed. The man's friend sets off to find the killer and uncovers much more than he ever thought.
The entire film uses dark, distorted sets that provide an uneasy feeling.
The costumes and makeup are also highly stylized—even the intertitles use strange fonts and background shapes. The film was produced at the end of World War I, which also happened to be the end of the German Empire.
It is a quintessential example of German Expressionism—an art movement emphasizing the artist's inner feelings or ideas over replicating reality. At the time, the flu pandemic was raging worldwide, an economic crisis had taken hold, and Germany was undergoing a massive upheaval of everything they'd known.
It's hard to keep describing the plot without major spoilers, and plenty of people haven't seen this film even over a hundred years after it was released.
Only the entire story I just described takes part as a flashback. The film opens with a framing story. Two men are sitting on a park bench, the younger one relaying an ordeal—the bulk of the film—to the older one. The flashback I just wrote about happens on screen. Then everything is brought to a head when we, the viewers, come to understand that we may be witnessing the flashback story of an unreliable narrator...and the framing story itself may not even be reliable.
Remakes & More
As with most great films, there have been some efforts to recreate the magic. Below are a few that stand out in one way or another.
In 1962, a film titled The Cabinet of Caligari was released. The trailer is here; the full version is available on YouTube. Interestingly, the script was written by Robert Bloch, who authored the novel Psycho—which was famously adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. This film didn't perform well, and the director disowned it, claiming that the studio turned the final cut into a "lurid, sex-charged picture." It bears little resemblance to the original 1920 film, except for a similar name and ending plot twist.
In 1989, a film titled Dr. Caligari was released. It's supposed to be an avant-garde horror erotic movie about the experiments of Dr. Caligari on the patients in her asylum. It is an incredibly bizarre film, and you can get a taste of the weird from the 2-minute film trailer here: Dr. Caligari Trailer 1989. Considering that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920 was the direct inspiration for this film, it's pretty odd to think about how the writers created it, as it seems more parody than anything to me—even though that doesn't seem to be the intention. Still, it was the 80s...
In 2005, a direct remake of the original film was released, titled The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's not a silent film, but it is shot in many ways like the original. The actors performed in front of green screens, and the original set designs from the 1920 version were captured and reproduced digitally, giving the film an eerie and authentic feel. You can see the film trailer here for yourself.
There have also been two audio adaptations, one in 1998 by Yuri Rasovsky and another in 2008 by BBC Radio 3. The 1998 version is available on Audible, and the 2008 version is available to listen to here.
The Legacy of Dr. Caligari
Many film experts consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the world's first "true" horror film. Its impact and the ripples it left behind are still being felt across the film industry today in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to horror and film noir.
If the film had never been made or had somehow been lost, who knows where we might be with filmmaking, storytelling, and visual art? So many old movies that once existed are no longer with us, whether by fire, flood, or simply the ravages of time against the lack of preservation.
Lucky for us, this one made it and is now easily accessible.
Here's a film trailer of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Many of the older copies on VHS or DVD conversions were pretty low quality, and many weren't even timed correctly because of the methods used to make such old films viewable in new formats. Some ended up with time compression, so the 74-minute film was something more like 50 minutes—the entire movie sped up a bit.
If you want to watch it, try this faithful reconstruction by Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv of Germany: The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920).
And to see something truly incredible, watch this 1080p restoration that includes stabilized footage to remove the shakiness and closed captions for translations: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / AKA The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Compare that to the film trailer I linked above. Your mind will be blown at the results of the effort to recapture it in high-definition. Some people are even trying to colorize it.
Grab some popcorn and throw it on one evening, and let me know what you think.
Relevant & Related
- Check out more about the efforts that went into restoring The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
- Take a crash course in German Expressionism.
- An engaging discussion of the film by City Cinematheque.
- A book by Siegfried Kracauer published back in 1947 titled From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film explored the (still controversial) claim that "films as a popular art provide insight into the unconscious motivations and fantasies of a nation."
- Find out how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the Batman villain Joker are connected.
- Similarly, here's a video that examines what movies reveal about the society that creates them.
- Cinemassacre (one of my go-to's for film history) has a review of the film that includes quite a few interesting tidbits that trace the impact on the movies that came after, all the way to today.
- Speaking of Cinemassacre, check out the Top 10 Lost Horror Films to learn about a few films that might be lost forever.
- Here are a few other films and film-related topics I've written about that you may enjoy: Incident in a Ghostland | The Invention of PG-13 | Casper the Friendly Ghost | Godzilla (1954) | Cooking With Vincent Price | Son of Frankenstein (1939) | Coffin Joe of Brazil | The Spooky Bunch (1980)