DIRECTOR: Robert Wiene
“That night there occurred the first of a series of mysterious crimes…Murder!’”
When a circus visits a mountain village in Germany, the most thrilling and anticipated act is Cesare the Somnambulist, a man who has slept constantly for 23 years. The arrival of the Somnambulist and his master, the enigmatic and peculiar Dr Caligari, is marked by a series of disappearances and killings which confound the townspeople. Made in 1920 and directed by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of the most influential and acclaimed films of the German expressionist movement, the action unfolding in a painter’s world of patterns and angles. The characters are puppet- like figures, mostly wearing top hats, staggering around these beautifully- constructed soundstage sets.
One of the first horror films and a key influence on the popular film noir style in 1940s Hollywood, Caligari is entirely disconcerting and not at all like the horror films you’ll be used to seeing. For the uninitiated to silent cinema, the lip-reading and intertitles take some getting used to. However, with broad, theatrical acting and the intriguing, surreal landscape, it’s not a hard film to pay attention to. The shaky handwriting of the intertitles is a sufficient guide, moving us through the complex plot with the help of a trembling string sextet.
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However, as the predictably fumbling police catch the wrong man and the murders continue, you may smugly declare that it’s pretty obvious who the real murderer is—isn’t it? Perhaps not; the film shifts the investigation to an asylum, blurring the lines between good and evil, sane and mad, and in doing so is responsible for one of the most innovative and groundbreaking third acts in modern cinema. Reality is uncertain. Bizarre and entertaining, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari won’t make you jump or scream, but it is undeniably creepy.