Today is the 94th anniversary of the release of one of the greatest horror films of all time. On February 26, 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, premiered at the Marmorhaus Theater in Berlin, Germany. This bizarre and incredibly creepy film electrified audiences, both with its depiction of horror and the artistry of its Expressionist sets and filming style. In the (almost) century since its release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has influenced the genre of horror immensely.
It’s a very weird and offbeat film, even for a silent movie made in the 1920s. The visions are abstract and dreamlike, with jagged, non-realistic designs painted on flat backgrounds. The plot concerns a mysterious carnival huckster, “Dr.” Caligari (is he really a doctor?), and his sideshow attraction, a “somnambulist” who he keeps locked in a cabinet and who may just be a serial killer. But the plot is only the least important part of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Its artistic contribution to the German Expressionist movement and its terrifying moods and emotional roller-coaster have marked it as an uncommonly memorable film.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could only have been made in Weimar Germany. The film industry in Germany in the years following World War I was uniquely stocked with amazing talent, and a wealth of cultural and societal dissatisfaction was there to be expressed and tapped into. F.W. Murnau’s amazing Nosferatu (1922) came out of the same time and place. Combined with the Weimar government’s progressive encouragement of the arts, the difficult times of post-WWI Germany led to a cultural flowering that expressed itself not just in movies but also in art, music and performance art–I’m thinking of the unique “cabaret culture” that was reflected in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and the movie Cabaret. The whole period is really amazing, both for its richness and its very short duration: the ascenscion of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to power in 1933 abruptly ended the Weimar culture.
Being a very old film long out of copyright, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available in full on YouTube. Here it is.