When discussing the most influential suspense or horror films of all time, you can’t ignore 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari–considered by many as the world’s first true horror film. Helping define narrative structure of the genre as we see it today, the silent classic gave us nonlinear storytelling long before Pulp Fiction or even Citizen Kane. Nearly one hundred years old, Dr. Caligari is undoubtedly aged, but not unexpectedly.
The premise is hard to pinpoint without giving anything away, but basically there are a series of murders happening all over town after a mysterious Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) sets up his sideshow at the fair. His spectacle features a man (Conrad Veidt) who’s been asleep for twenty-five years. Most of the community come to the conclusion that the murders are stemming from Dr. Caligari in some way or another, but they just have to prove it.
German Expressionism at its finest, this movie is filled with abstract funhouse sets which adequately match the flamboyant and zany tone. For some reason, almost every shot is stationary, which works well to build suspense for a couple of scenes, but also slows down the already sluggish pace of the narrative–especially early on–giving the movie a feeling more similar to a stage play. There isn’t a ton of dialogue or intertitles, but the movie attempts to sustain our attention mainly on its “action”. However, when the camerawork is dry, this lack of movement tends to backfire.
Fortunately, the acting is excellent, with performances all around that never really go over-the-top or even feel like the characters are living in the early 20th century. There are a lot of relatable expressions and idiosyncrasies even amidst a very grainy and archaic transfer. The standout is Friedrich Fehér, who plays Francis, our protagonist and storyteller.
The movie does feature some very questionable and convenient character decisions. For instance, after a couple of murders, the entire town is in a panic trying to look for the man who did it. And when they finally get him within their reach, they don’t take advantage of the opportunity to snag him.
There’s also a partially relevant love-triangle subplot which underlies the film and keeps getting jarringly inserted throughout the story. Seemingly out-of-place, these sequences draw too much of our focus and we start wondering why the filmmakers chose to include them at all.
Silent films are challenging in their own right. You have to go into them with a different mindset already. Though The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes this to a whole different level. The expressionist piece was avant-garde during a time when people had less options. But the classic is also a surrealistic mindscape, which significantly helps the appeal, despite several boring sequences and a muddled story. Perhaps people back then were somewhat used to this. Maybe films nowadays help the audience out too much. However, there are also many more options these days.
For film history, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is definitely worth the watch. And for sheer entertainment, it’s somewhat sufficient.