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Credited as introducing the "twist ending" to cinema, Robert Wiene's 1920 "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is a groundbreaking work of German Expressionism. The early horror film also introduces the frequently copied bookend structure so popular in modern cinema.
Wiene deploys a radical dreamscape of macabre lighting, Gothic make-up, and a boldly disjointed set design to form a twisting suspense story about an evil doctor who exploits a sleepwalker in order to perform serial acts of murder.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” embodies an iconic brand of angular surrealism that defies gravity. The effect is unsettling. The film's ripples of influence can be found in avant-garde, film noir, horror, and thrillers ranging from crime to psychological suspense. Its angular stage sets and long shadows presage F. W. Murnau's aggressive designs for "Nosferatu"--made two years later in 1922.
The script was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer after World War I, a period of widespread violence throughout the country. Insanity is rampant. At an abstract level, the picture presages Hitler’s mad Machiavellian manipulation that turned Germany into a killing machine during World War II.
A ghostly looking Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounts to an equally pale friend his strange tale of woe involving his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover). While visiting an annual fair in Holstenwall, Francis and his friend Alan visit a sideshow where Dr. Caligari exhibits Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a zombie-like "somnambulist" who has been asleep for 23 years. Someone has been stabbed to death the night before. Before Dr. Caligari's sideshow audience, Caesar emerges from an upright coffin to answer questions from the crowd. Alan worriedly asks how long he has left to live. Francis and Alan are caught in a love triangle with Jane. The vampire-like Caesar informs Alan he will only live "till dawn." Indeed, Alan's death comes later that night. Convinced that Caesar murdered his friend, Francis begins to follow the strange Dr. Caligari.
The filmmakers use various colored filters to create the effect of a color movie. Tinted shades of sepia tone, blue, and purple add narrative depth to queasy episodes of altered mental states. An ingenious plot revelation involving a mental asylum puts the icing on the cake. With its unusual look and neatly folding method of storytelling “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is an artistically uninhibited silent horror film that still sends chills.
Not rated. 67 mins.