Feature Film Showcase – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

“Movies… For Free!”, showcasing classic movies that have fallen out of copyright and are available freely from the public domain. This week…

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (English: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), 1920.

Directed by Robert Wiene.
Starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the earliest examples of German Expressionism and centres on the murderous sideshow attraction of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his sleepwalking seer Cesare (Conrad Veidt, whose appearance in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs would serve as the inspiration for Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker). Highly praised upon release for its stark lighting and moody atmosphere, bizarre set design and effective use of mise-en-scene, the film’s influence reached far beyond the Expressionist movement to have a profound impact on the genres of horror and film-noir.

Told in flashback form, the narrator – a young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) – recalls a tale where he and a friend had encountered Dr. Caligari at a carnival, with Cesare successfully prophesising the friend’s death before dawn the next day. Suspicious of Caligari, Francis and girlfriend Jane (Lil Dagover, later a favoured companion of Hitler on the Nazi party scene) set out to investigate. After Jane is captured, Francis discovers Caligari is actually the head of a local asylum who has become obsessed with copying the crimes of an eighteenth century travelling act.

Although Wiene and writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer originally intended for Caligari and Cesare to be responsible for their crimes, the film’s producers wished for a more upbeat ending and convinced Wiene to add Francis’ framing story, inserting a twist ending that sees events as nothing more than a delusion (an idea suggested by Fritz Lang, who had passed on directing duties in favour of his two part mystery, The Spiders). Nevertheless The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a genuinely unsettling work of art and one of the finest films of its period.

Embed courtesy of Internet Archive.

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