The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
By: J.R. McNamara on May 29, 2009  | 
Beyond (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 71 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Robert Wiene
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski, Friedrich Fehér
Screenplay: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Country: Germany
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There are a few truly important horror films in the history of cinema. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dracula, Psycho and many others sit in an exclusive collective of films, much debated must-sees which bisect the film going community as to whether they are 'good' or not. I for one don't believe a film needs to be good to be important. What it does need is to be groundbreaking, or have historical significance due to the way it was filmed, or even why it was filmed. Director Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of those films.

Straight off the bat I will say that I did not enjoy it. I found it a somewhat tedious endeavor that at best showed Weine to be competent filmmaker… but judging a film this old is extremely difficult. My role as a film reviewer is to inform the audience how much I enjoyed a film, and on what level I think it sits in comparison to other films, but when a film is as old as this and whose breakthroughs, now common, were revolutionary at the time, is that fair?

So baring all that in mind, one must see that I am not wishing to show any disrespect to this film. As a combination of German Expressionistic art and the commercialization of cinema it is a phenomenon, but as a source of entertainment in today's world, I found it to be lacking. True collectors of ALL film should have this in their collection, for sure, but it may be a one-watch wonder.

This film was written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, and many of the conventions used in this film are still used today by filmmakers. This film is one of the earliest, if not THE earliest example of how cinema can be an artform. The writers, along with Weine, gave both commercial cinema to the artists, and abstract art to the cinema goer.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari starts with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher) telling an old man he sits with a tale of murder and horror. He tells of a carnival performer named Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) who wishes to get a permit from the town clerk to perform in the town's fair. The clerk is quite rude to the Doctor, and palms him off to one of his offsiders. Caligari takes umbrage to this, and his annoyance is evident.

The next day the clerk is found dead, but the show must go on, and so Francis and his friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski) decide to go to the fair, and on a whim choose to visit Caligari's spectacle. Caligari invites people into his tent, where they can see the incredible somnambulist Cesare (pronounced Chez-ar-ay played by Conrad Veidt) who has been asleep for 23 years and only awakens to tell peoples fortunes. Alan wishes his fortune to be told and he is informed he will not live to the next day, and the prophecy rings true when he murdered in his bed by a mysterious assailant.

Francis tells his girlfriend, Jane (Lil Dagover) and her father Dr Olsen (Rudolph Lettinger) of the prediction and they decide to take it to the police, Caligari and Cesare being their number one suspects. The police give the Olsen's permission to examine Cesare, but as they do the murderer is apparently arrested. The murderer admits to a murder, but not that of either the town clerk or of Alan, and so the actual murderer must still be at large. Francis is sure of Caligari's and Cesare's involvement and sets about proving his suspicions… will they be found to be correct? Or is there a greater story at work here, involving more than Francis is even aware of?

There is no doubt that visually this is amazing. The carefully designed angular backgrounds make every scene look like an actual painting rather than a film, and the make-up and costume designs of Caligari and Cesare fit into the backgrounds well, with the rest of the folk appearing to be far more 'real', and not of the same world as the 'villains;' of the piece. The acting is melodramatic, of course, this being a silent film it has to be, as expression cannot be conveyed through tone of voice.

As a final note, I do have to say, and at the risk of exposing my self as some kind of cultural philistine, I kept expecting Rob Zombie to appear and sing about his Living Dead Girl.
The image is pretty bad: very artifact-y and has a lot of telecine wobble, but still, I have seen some films from the sixties that have looked a lot worse. This film is from 1920, remember, so a bit of leniency can be afforded. It is presented in full screen, and in mostly tinted black and white. Maybe it is a product of transferring such an old film to DVD, but I found the image pixilated quite often as well; not so much as it became an annoyance, but just enough so that it was noticeable.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0. It is a haunting musical score only, and sits nicely with the film.
Extra Features
The first of the extras is a second film by Robert Weine, written by Janowitz and Mayer called Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire. This film is simply terrible. The narrative is all over the place, and tells of a priestess of a tribe sold into slavery and who eventually becomes the property of a wealthy man. He keeps her locked in a basement, from which she eventually escapes and starts beguiling men into killing each other for her. Eventually her evil is exposed and she becomes undone. When you compare Weine's cinematic style from Caligari to this (filmed a year after) you will see that this is poorly paced and terribly over-acted, even more so than Caligari. In my research for this film I discovered that this may not be a complete print, which in my opinion makes it a pretty worthless extra if you are attempting to show other examples of a filmmaker's work. The costumes are ornate, and the sets are over the top and the hairstyles, well they look like the lead singer of the eighties band A Flock Of Seagulls designed them. It is, of course, all within the German Expressionistic milieu, and so fits in with the world it inhabits. What did surprise me was a touch of nudity (well some toplessness)  considering the age of the film. A sidenote though, the female lead Genuine does not come across as a vampire, but more a witch, as she is labeled within the film, or even more appropriate, a succubus.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari comes with two audio choices: the first is the marvelous soundtrack composed and performed by Donald Sosin, who has previously rescored films from the 30s. The second choice is a challenging commentary by Film Scholar Mike Budd, and I have to say this is the highlight of the disc. It is a deep commentary which discusses not just the film, but its place within cinematic history and its reflections of German art and culture at the time. The information he provides will make the film fan really take notice.

Finally a wonderful gallery of lobby cards, posters, sheet music and original design art by Herman Warm and Walter Reimann.

This release also has an illustrated twelve page booklet which explains the plot of the film (including spoilers), discusses behind the scenes of the story and its origins and shows what happened to the various cast and crew of the film, all written by Graeme Dickenson
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
I hate to say it, but for me this film was like vegetables: I know they are important, but it doesn't mean I have to like them. I appreciate the artistic merit and cultural importance of this film, but I just didn't enjoy it. This is a film you may want for the cinematic importance in your collection, but I doubt you'll find yourself pulling it out on a regular basis to watch it.

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