The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: A Horror Masterpiece


It’s that time of year—jack-o-lanterns, treats, and the requisite skeletons, zombies, vampires and other creatures from the horror pantheon appear for a night.


What exactly is horror?


Merriam Webster defines horror as a “painful and intense fear” and a horror story as “an account of an unsettling …occurrence.”


Both these definitions epitomize one of the greatest German Expressionist—and horror—films ever made.



Directed by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 silent film that still evokes a sense of horror—that is, intense fear, 91 years after its release. The Expressionist style of the distorted set design combined with the subjective perspective of the narrator Francis, who relates the story of a visit he and his friend Alan make to a town fair in Holstenwall, creates a mood ripe for horror.



But it is Francis’s story of a traveling hypnotist, Dr. Caligari and his exhibit, the somnambulist Cesare that truly evokes a sense of unease. Cesare is perhaps one of Conrad Veidt’s finest roles, though he is probably better remembered for playing Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca. (Veidt btw was a staunch anti-Nazi in real life, having fled Germany with his Jewish wife in 1933.) ]


Veidt’s portrayal of Cesare perfectly captures the restraint of a man caught under the spell of the mad doctor Dr. Caligari (skillfully played by Werner Krauss) who orders him to kill. Cesare’s lithe, controlled movements as a somnambulist tool of the doctor contrast sharply with his “reawakening” when he manages to regain control of himself in a pivotal scene with Jane, Francis’s fiancée whom he’s been sent to kill, but kidnaps instead.


Many of what are now classical horror movie images appear in this film. Perhaps the most cliché and yet enduring is that of the monster pursued by angry townspeople as he carries off the heroine. That sometimes all too real image is horrific in itself. But what makes it so intense and unsettling is the glimpse the viewer has had of the innate humanity beneath the monstrous façade.



Coincidentally, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first examples of both a framed story—the main narrative is told in flashback—and a twist ending.


Check it out—and have a Happy Halloween.


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