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Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Hello, Persephoneers! Our second film to commemorate Slay Belle’s 31 Days of Halloween is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in 1920 and directed by Robert Wiene. It stars Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, and Lil Dagover. It was groundbreaking in many respects and is also considered a prime example of the expressionist art movement being used on film.

The film starts out with two friends, Francis (Feher) and Alan, who are both courting the same woman. They both go to the carnival outside of their local village and meet the mysterious Dr. Caligari (Krauss) and Cesare (Veidt), the somnambulist who is kept asleep in a coffin-like cabinet and is part of the doctor’s carnival attraction. Caligari controls Cesare hypnotically and claims that Cesare is able to foresee the future. Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, and Cesare predicts that he will die at dawn. True to Cesare’s word, Alan does die at dawn, killed at the hands of a shadowy figure that is also responsible for other murders in the area.

Caligari film poster
Poster from film. Image via Wikipedia.

Francis and Jane (Dagover), who are now engaged, are curious about Caligari and seek to learn more about him. When Caligari discovers this, he orders Cesare to murder Jane. When Cesare encounters Jane, he is so enraptured by her beauty that he can’t kill her, so he instead kidnaps her. The townspeople chase him down until he is finally forced to give her up, and the exhaustion from the pursuit kills him.

Francis does some further investigative work on Caligari, and he is led to the local insane asylum because he wants to know if it ever housed a patient by that name. Caligari is the asylum’s director, and his colleagues at the hospital help Francis to learn more about the mysterious doctor. It turns out that there is more to the doctor that meets the eye. The man who calls himself Caligari is obsessed with an eighteenth-century mad monk of the same name who used hypnotism to compel a somnambulist to commit several murders. The man calling himself Dr. Caligari has patterned himself after the eighteenth-century monk and is committing murders in the exact same fashion. The asylum doctors, shocked at this, send for the authorities, who arrest Caligari. Caligari, upon learning of Cesare’s death, surrenders and ends up as a patient in what was once his own asylum. While the story of Caligari seems to have been resolved, the film’s actual ending is shocking and very unexpected.

Caligari still
Still from film. Image via Wikipedia.

The film was one of the first to ever use a frame story, as the plot outlined above is actually a story that Francis is telling another man in flashback. It is also one of the first films to use the surprise ending, which is commonly used in horror films today. But perhaps the most prominent point of the film is the entire aesthetic itself. Lights and shadows were painted directly on the items used in the set, and that, combined with the exaggerated, jerky movements of the actors, gives the film a surreal, nightmarish quality. You have to watch the film yourself to see how everything plays together to add to the growing sense of horror and dread. Many of the devices used in the film are still used in many horror films today.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is currently available on Netflix Instant and can also be obtained through Netflix’s DVD service.

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