‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ turns 100

Cesare attempts to kidnap Francis's fiancée Jane.

Cesare attempts to kidnap Francis's fiancée Jane.

Tyler Smith, North Campus Editor

The forefather of the horror movie genre The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari turns a century old. Despite only being an hour and twenty minutes long, the impact and innovations of this film are still felt a hundred years after its release.
Often cited as the first horror film, this silent German expressionist film remains as one of the most important films of all time. Directed by German director Robert Wiene and released on Feb 26 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari laid the foundation for the horror genre to bloom and flourish.
The film does not get this praise for only being one of the first horror films and one of the first German expressionist films, it gets this praise for being one of the best.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari follows a young man named Francis who is recalling his story of his horrifying experiences with the hypnotist Dr. Caligari and the Somnambulist Cesare. During the visit to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Francis’s friend, Alan, sees the Somnambulist Cesare who tells Alan that he will die before dawn. When Alan is murdered like Cesare predicted, Francis seeks to find his killer.
It is discovered that the hypnotist Dr. Caligari uses Cesare to commit murders. During Francis’s investigation, Cesare tries to kidnap Frances’s fiancée Jane and ultimately dies while trying to escape. Francis tracks Dr. Caligari to a mental asylum where reality is bent, and things are not as they seem.
The style of this Robert Wiene film became the standard for the genre and defined what horror and German expressionism was. Its crooked and shaky background, dark and bleak scenery, harsh visuals, and surrealist style was revolutionary for the time; a never seen glimpse into what horror can be.
This style is trademarked by the painted and distorted shadows, the pointed and curved buildings that lean and twist in obscure forms, and the harsh lines that made the dreadful and petrifying environments that surround the film. These backdrops and visuals created a macabre of images that terrified audiences of the past. Without these innovations, classics like Nosferatu (1922), Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Sweeney Todd would not have had their catalyst to make their form.
Other techniques like stop-motion and stylized title cards for the dialogue only furthered the world and surrealism of the film.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was not only a visual masterpiece, but also changed the way horror movies and cinematic stories were told. Gone were the days of simple storytelling, and here the practice of immersion and psychology began. Robert Weine revolutionized the film industry by immersing the audience, creating a new sense of fear for the viewer in the form of psychological horror.
The film’s world immersed audiences and created a sense of vulnerability. The nightmarish scenes and unreal and surreal imagery made true horror possible. A world where safety was not guaranteed.
These forms of storytelling, film psychology, and visual techniques were extremely innovative. In the infancy of film, Robert Weine and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari changed everything.
This film is also a product of the time and environment in which is was created. After the first world war, Germany was mostly isolated. Due to this, the culture and society in Germany changed. German expressionism was kept within Germany, where themes of reality versus perception, authoritarianism, madness, betrayal, and the misery of modern urban life began to arise.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari encapsulates all these themes perfectly into one film, becoming the pinnacle and of the most important German expressionist films
A century later, audiences are still discussing this film. The impact is still felt. Cinema and the horror genre were never the same after the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The Freddy Krueger’s, Jason Vorhees’s, and Michael Myer’s of modern horror are indebted to Dr. Caligari and the world that Robert Weine created.
So, when watching The Grudge, IT, or The Shining it is important to remember where this all began. With Robert Wiene in the twisted and insane mind of Dr. Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.