From the very beginning, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a tale born in shadows.
According to famous legend, the idea for the film came to screenwriter Hans Janowitz one evening while he was attending a carnival.
Amidst all the fun and revelry, Janowitz noted the figure of a strange man skulking about the grounds.
It was only the next day that the terrible implications of the manís presence made themselves known. A young girl was found murdered in the very area that Janowitz had noted seeing the man.
But it wasnít quite over after that. Attending the girlís funeral, Janowitz was alarmed to see the very same man standing amongst the graves. Watching. It was from this macabre life experience that one of cinemaís greatest and most visually bizarre films was brought forth from the darkness of a writerís mind to the glittering screen of 1920ís Germany and, later, the world.
From the opening scenes to the shocking finale, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari continues to amaze and enthrall in what is one of the finest depictions of a three-dimensional nightmare committed to celluloid.
A young, haunted-looking man sits on a bench with an older gentleman in what appears to be a barren park. The younger man soon spots the ghostly figure of a dark-haired woman roaming about the grounds, as if in some stupor. The man explains that the woman was his betrothed and that they both suffered a terrible fate that ended in tragedy for all. He begins to weave his strange tale for the old gentleman to hearÖ
The man, whom we discover is named Francis (Friedrich Feher), lived in the sprawling hillside town of Holstenwall. During the time of his story, a fair rides into the village to provide the townsfolk with majestic sights and sounds. But what also comes with the arrival of the carnival is an odd little mountebank by the name of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).
The doctor travels into the offices of the snooty town clerk to receive a permit for his sideshow. The rather rude clerk turns his nose up at Caligari when the man mentions his attraction is a somnambulist. Caligari just sits angrily brooding, horrible deeds undoubtedly dancing in his twisted head.
At the other end of town is Francisí good friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) who, upon seeing the tents being set up for the fair, immediately sets out into the bustling streets to call up on Francis.
The two lighthearted men head into the festivities as organ grinders and carousels fill the colorful background. But a terrible omen of events to come occurs when the slain body of the town clerk is found in his bedroom in the heart of town by the police.
The duo soon happens upon Caligariís tent, the little wizard eagerly ballyhooing his show to the eager crowd. Morbidly curious by the prospect of a sleepwalker, the two friends enter the dark recesses of the tent with the rest for the mysterious show.
A lone casket-like box rests on the stage, the crate in which Caligariís slave is kept. After slumbering for a period of twenty-five years, the zombie will now be awakened.
Upon opening the box, the audience is revealed the ghastly slight of Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a ghoulish looking man whose eyes burn from his pallid face with unholy light. As Cesare begins to shed the throes of sleep, Caligari prompts members of the audience to ask Cesare any questions, for he shall answer them all.
Alan is the only soul brave enough to volunteer. Terror painting his face, Alan asks the lumbering figure how long he has to live. The answer he receives is not a pleasant one: Cesare forebodingly intones that Alan shall die by dawn. Horrified by this response, Francis and Alan depart from the tent as does the rest of the mystified crowd.
Walking through the winding streets of the village, the two soon run into the darkly beautiful Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover) whom the men escort back to her home. It soon becomes apparent that both men are in love with Jane, but Francis makes it known that he wants to keep his friendship with Alan intact despite his engagement to Jane.
Alan walks back to his tenement for a night of peaceful sleep. Thatís the last thing he gets, for we see the menacing shadow of Cesare splashed across the wall as it overcomes Alanís own. The dark form of a dagger ripples across the wall before the bloody deed is done.
Francis receives the dreadful news the next morning when Alanís distraught maid comes screaming into his apartment. Seeing the tortured corpse of his friend in bed, Francis remembers the grave warning that Cesare had issued to Alan the previous day at the fair. Feeling that the sleepwalker has some sinister connection to the crime, Francis journeys into the townís constabulary to warn the law of the danger.
After breaking the news to a saddened Jane, Francis discusses his suspicions with her father Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). They decide to head into the fairgrounds themselves to investigate Cesare and his mysterious keeper Dr. Caligari.
Meanwhile, the hypnotist arouses Cesare from his coffin to feed him some gruel, but hides his slave upon the arrival of the two gentlemen from town. Without finding any sign of the somnambulist or any other incriminating evidence, Francis and Dr. Olsen leave Caligari laughing in his ramshackle caravan.
Back in Holstenwall, some wretched fiend breaks into a house with some nefarious purpose on his mind. An occupant of the home screams for help and proclaims that the intruder is the murderer thatís been haunting the province.
The prowler (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) attempts to flee but is duly hunted down by the men folk who bring the ruffian into the constabulary.
Although the bloke admits to being a criminal, he swears that the blood from the two murders is not on his hands. Francis looks on and feels as if the poor soul is right.
Searching for her father, Jane walks to the fair and comes upon Caligariís tent. The doctor entices the frightened girl to enter and approach the cabinet on stage. The damned sight of the sleepwalker forces her to run away in terror. Francis later returns to the fair and witnesses Caligari and his sleep-deprived slave cavorting in the caravan.
But soon Cesare is free once again, the spoken command of his master guiding him on to Janeís home. Stalking through the French windows, Cesare slowly raises his instrument of death as he looks on at the sleeping girl.
Infatuated with her beauty, Cesare instead snatches Jane up and laughs as he caresses her in his hands. Jane is so petrified by the vision that she faints away and Cesare soon takes her limp form out into the night.
The members of the household cry out in alarm as the towering form of Cesare lurches across the winding buildings in the skyline. A mob is gathered together and they set out to hunt the monster down.
Cesare evades his captors as best as he can through dark brambles and gargantuan bridges, leaving Janeís body behind just to make it to safety. However, overcome with extreme exhaustion, the sleepwalker finally collapses into a dead heap.
Leaving the fair, Francis finds the stunned Jane back at her home. He begins to wonder how it was possible for Cesare to hunt Jane when he saw the somnambulist back at the fair with Caligari. Resolving to solve the mystery, Francis and a group of other villagers storm into the caravan. They discover that it was a dummy made in the likeness of Cesare that Francis had seen in the coffin, leaving the sleepwalker free to carry out his masterís whims.
As for the good doctor, Francis finds Caligari fleeing through the countryside and promptly gives chase. Francis is lead to the local mental asylum, a somewhat fitting place for him to have arrived at after pursuing a maniac.
Upon entering the facility, Francis consults with the team of head physicians. Mentioning the name Caligari, the doctors retrieve an encyclopedia that gives a short historical account of a sorcerer named Caligari who purportedly haunted Italy with his zombie slave centuries ago.
The next item that is brought to attention is a personal diary that contains mentions of Caligari. It comes as a shock to Francis that the journal belongs to none other than the head physician of the sanitarium!
The frenzied entries detail the doctorís dark obsession with becoming Caligari and his search for a slave. When a sleepwalker is admitted to the asylum, the doctor rejoices and sets out to become his magical idol by using hypnosis to manipulate the patient.
After reading the grave contents of the diary, Francis boldly strides into the head physicianís office, calling him by his false name of Caligari. The shocked hypnotist is soon sent into convulsions when the dead body of Cesare is rolled into the office. Maddened with grief, Caligari attempts to strangle one of the doctors but is placed within the confines of a straitjacket.
With Caligari locked into one of the padded rooms of his own asylum, Francis breathes a sigh of relief as the door to his mad story finally closes.
Francis concludes his confession to the old man and the two walk away together. They wander into a small square occupied with all manners of people, all of them seemingly preoccupied only with the workings of their own mind.
Passing a thin, pale man picking flowers, Francis warns the old man that it is Cesare, the sleepwalker. Spotting Jane, Francis pleadingly asks her why they havenít wedded. The vacant-eyed mistress proclaims that she is of royal blood and cannot be bothered with such matters.
As things become more sinisterly apparent, the head physician walks out to examine the patients in the square. Francis screams that the doctor is Caligari out to kill them all and begins to attack the physician. He is promptly dragged away...screaming in a straitjacket and placed in a padded room.
The physician calms Francis down, realizing that the young manís pathology has forced him to think that the doctor is the infamous Caligari of myth. The doctor resolves to finally break Francis away from his illusion and cure him of his insanity.
As the horror genre was just beginning to shape into the fearsome creature that we all know today from the first silent shorts by Melies and Edison, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seemed to overshadow all others in its fierce uniqueness and incredible artistry. As some historians and genre fans attest, it is the first true horror film in motion picture history.
More than anything else, it is the groundbreaking production design by the team of Walter Reimann, Walter Rohrig, and Hermann Warm that sets The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari almost above and beyond other genre efforts of the era.
Who isnít familiar with the crawling shadows and deformed geometry that make this film a staple of the German Expressionist movement? Its perverted landscape truly evokes the sense that the story is being filtered through the skewed vision of a man whose mind has been irreversibly broken. The set pieces are nothing short of incredibly innovative and instantly unforgettable.
Both Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss truly terrify in their roles as servant and sorcerer, respectively. They may be caricatures held together by the smallest amount of character development, but both thespians show their prowess at embodying these two nightmare-creatures on the screen.
Whether itís Cesareís intimidating shadow stalking his latest victim or the mad Caligariís hateful stare glowing with gruesome intent, Veidt and Krauss take the material theyíre given and elevate it to the height of pure terror.
The two actors would later team up again for a turn in the silent creepy classic Waxworks (1924), each of them starring as notorious figures from history (Veidt playing Ivan the Terrible and Krauss playing Jack the Ripper).
Two years later, the duo appeared in a remake of Paul Wegenerís The Student of Prague (1926) wherein Veidt played the eponymous role selling his soul to the diabolical Krauss as Scapinelli.
Veidt also appeared (again under director Robert Wiene) in one of the many filmed versions of The Hands of Orlac (1924), playing the doomed lead who discovers that his newly acquired appendages have come from an infamous murderer and have a mind of their own.
Director Wiene dabbled in horror once more in 1920ís Genuine, an Expressionist film dealing with a vampiristic lady of the night.
Veidt would also terrify audiences as the tragic Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), an adaptation of Victor Hugoís novel about a man beset with the hideous deformity of having his lips forever peeled back in a terrible rictus grin. Veidt proved to be quite the formidable horror star, before going on to star in mainstream Hollywood films such as The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and Casablanca (1942).
Writer Hans Janowitz was the scribe behind The Head of Janus, a film loosely adapted from Robert Louis Stevensonís The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Conrad Veidt as both the good Dr. Warren and the evil Mr. OíConnor...not to mention Bela Lugosi in one of his earliest film roles as Veidtís butler!
Co-writer Carl Mayer later partnered up with German auteur F.W. Murnau on such diverse projects as The Haunted Castle (1921) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).
There can be no denying the historical relevance of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One need only sit down inside a quiet, darkened room to witness the epic that is Caligari in all its fevered glory to discover just what goes into the making of a terror classic.
So enter the good doctorís tent of wonders, if you dare. Thereís magic there, and shadows, too. Stop in for a bit and let the soft whispers of the somnambulist lull you into the ebony embraces of sleep.
When he's not snatching cadavers with his gorilla manservant, Jose Cruz keeps busy by feverishly writing on the horror genre. His grisly endeavors include Cold Reads, a regular column on horror literature over at Classic-Horror.com and contributing film reviews to The Blood Theatre. He also runs a madhouse called From Beyond Depraved where he blogs about his passion for terror in all its varied media forms through essays, reviews, and mild rambling.