The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had a reputation that proceeded itself. I first heard about the film while in middle school, and along with its co-traveler Nosferatu, the film became a minor obsession. I used to search online for it back in my school's computer lab, and I can still recall seeing Rob Zombie's video for "Living Dead Girl" and instantly recognizing the homage.
I didn't actually see the film until college, though. By that point, I had read enough film theory to recognize the historical importance of Robert Wiene's film. Still, despite this knowledge, the film floored me. Few films are as surreal or cerebral as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and even despite its twist ending, which, depending on my mood, leaves me cold, this 1920 German film is the dictionary definition of cinematic Expressionism.
The origins of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are rather unusual for a horror film (or, in the words or Roger Ebert, "the first true horror film"). After the screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz met in Berlin not long after the end of World War I, these two volksdeutschen (Mayer was from Austria, Janowitz from Bohemia) bonded over their shared pacifism and their belief that the new medium of film could serve as an all-encompassing art form, with writers, painters, photographers, and others collaborating together in order to make a single product. Added to this was their shared interest in making angry, anti-bourgeoisie art that would fundamentally differentiate German cinema from the thousands of American imports that were then very popular in Berlin.
According to many accounts, Mayer and Janowitz wrote the script for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in six weeks. Taking inspiration from assorted mysteries (Janowitz's 1913 run-in with a stranger exiting a house, Mayer's past with an autocratic medical officer, and a sideshow involving a strongman who could foretell the future while under hypnotic trance), the original script ended with the mystic Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare unmasked as real murderers. At first, Decla-Bioscop Studios and producer Eric Pommer threw Mayer and Janowitz out with their script. But, impressed with Mayer and Janowitz's convictions, Pommer ultimately relented on the condition that the ending would be changed. This then is the origin of one of cinema's first depictions of the diseased mind on screen.
Set in the village of Holstenwall, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells the story of the mad hypnotist Dr. Caligari (played convincingly by Werner Krauss) and his sideshow attraction Cesare (played even more convincingly by Conrad Veidt). When the fair comes to town, the friends Francis (played by Friedrich Feher) and Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) find themselves drawn to the buzzing activity along with the rest of the town. While there, the two find Dr. Caligari, who barks that in his large cabinet is a somnambulist (Cesare) who only awakens on his commands. When awake, Cesare can predict the future with unfailing accuracy. Only the brave should enter his stall, Dr. Caligari warns.
Spurred on by this warning, Alan asks Cesare about the length of his life. Cesare responds by telling him that he won't live to see the morning. Sure enough, Alan is murdered in his sleep that very night by an unknown intruder with a dagger.
From here, Holstenwall is plunged into chaos as further crimes are committed. When a mysterious stranger (played by the brilliant character actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is caught trying to murder an old woman, many think that the terror has ceased. Unfortunately, while the supposed murderer languishes in prison, Jane Olsen (played by Lil Dagover), the love interest of both Francis and Alan, is somehow abducted in the night by Cesare, even despite Francis's watch on Dr. Caligari's trailer.
As it turns out, the body that Francis saw in the cabinet was a dummy, and it's revealed that the carnival duo are indeed responsible for the series of crimes in the village. Francis follows Dr. Caligari one night to a local insane asylum, where he uncovers the shocking fact that Dr. Calgari is the asylum's director, not a patient. By reading his diary, Francis learns that the real Dr. Caligari (which bears an unmistakable resemblance to Cagliostro, the name of an 18th century Italian occultist) was a murderous Svengali who was responsible for several terrible crimes in northern Italy during the early 18th century. The Director found inspiration in this historical monster, and while under this inspiration, set out to see if a sleepwalker could be forced to commit murder. When a hopeless case of somnambulism arrives at the asylum, the Director pounces.
At the conclusion, this story is revealed to be a sham concocted by the disturbed Francis, who is an inmate at the very same hospital run by the Director. Cesare, as it turns out, is a fellow patient, and so too is Jane - a tragic young woman who envisions herself as the lonely Queen of the Asylum. Dr. Caligari is a myth, and the film ends when Francis's delusions are fully disclosed to the actual Director (who is of course played by Krauss).
While the film's story is noteworthy, what grabs most people are its sets. Designed by Hermann Warm and created by the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, the mise-en-scene of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most original and disturbing set designs in history. Created in order to mirror the imbalanced psychologies of the characters themselves, Holstenwall is a jumble of asymmetrical corners, dark, crabby passageways, and thoroughly unnatural buildings. Overall, the film is an case of estrangement wherein the audience is never allowed to fully invest in the plot, for everything is far too unreal.
While many commentators have noted the Freudian and even Jungian overtones of the film, the Marxist critic Siegfried Kracauer, the author of From Caligari to Hitler, made the idiosyncratic claim that the film is a snapshot of the postwar German mind. In particular, Kracauer noted that for the war-weary and ashamed Germans, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari offered two choices: either the dictatorship of Dr. Calgari, an insane, but strong Napoleon (a fact underscored by a scene in which Dr. Caligari places his hand underneath his coat's lapels) who can guarantee order, or the chaos of the fair. Looking back from the vantage point of post-World War II Europe, Kracauer deduced that Germans sought safety in spite of mental slavery, and thus the Nazis rose to power.
Although Kracauer's assertions have been widely refuted over the years, there is something to be said about the film's relationship to its audience. Weimar Germany was a golden age for German film, and most of these well-regarded films are horror movies that involve societies manipulated by strong-willed entities (Caligari, Count Orlok, Mephistopheles). Whatever the case, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains one of the greatest films ever made and one of the few movies to hold a 100% fresh rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. If it is indeed a film about the masses, then the masses have and continue to approve of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.