The German silent film ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ (1920) was one of the first films of the German Expressionist movement. A fantastic angular graphic design, with shadows painted directly onto the sets, emphasised not only the nightmare quality of the tale, essentially a descent into madness, but also cinema as art.
While Caligari quintessentially remains a Gothic work harking back to the German horror stories found in ‘The Phantasmagoriana’ (published 1821), it is also the forerunner of Film Noir and psychological horror, which Hitchcock with Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) would make his own.
The story, in flashback, is told by Francis to an old man as they sit together in the garden of a mental asylum. Francis is visiting his fiancée Jane, whose fragile state, he claims, is the result of a terrible ordeal.
The tale starts when Francis and his friend Alan visit Dr Caligari’s sideshow at a travelling fair. Caligari exhibits a somnambulist- a man who appears asleep in a coffin. Upon Caligari’s command, the somnambulist opens his eyes and tells the audience’s fortunes. When Alan asks how long he will live the somnambulist replies, “Until Dawn!”
Later that night Alan is murdered.
The police arrest a criminal attacking an old woman, but he denies killing Alan. Coming from the police station, Francis sees the somnambulist break into Jane’s house. He raises the alarm causing somnambulist to abduct her.
An angry mob corner the somnambulist who drops dead.
Furious, they race to confront Caligari.
When Caligari escapes, Francis tracks him to an insane asylum, where he is the Director. Obsessed with the writings of an 18-century mystic called Dr Caligari -who used a somnambulist to commit murder- the Director hypnotised a patient to become his unwitting slave. Francis concludes his tale by saying the Director was arrested and became an inmate in his own asylum.
A final twist reveals Francis is the asylum inmate. Jane is also a patient, as is the somnambulist; who is alive, awake and given to outbursts of rage. Caligari is the asylum director, as Francis claimed, but still in charge. The film ends with Francis manically attacking the Director and having to be restrained in a straight-jacket.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari together with two other influential German silent films Nosferatu (1922 – a vampire movie based on the novel Dracula) and Metropolis (1927 – Dystopian science fiction – dystopia the opposite of utopia) created much of the modern sci-fi/ horror movies we have love today. And in fact, have always loved since they first hit the screen.
Also see the article on the German silent film The Golem