Although Almost 100 Years Old, 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' Is Surprisingly Modern

Deliberate artificiality and horror based in human psychology make horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, first released in 1920, feel remarkably fresh today.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Director: Robert Wiene
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover, Friedrich Feher
Distributor: Kino Classics
Studio: Decla-Bioscop AG
US Release Date: 2014-11-18

For a film first released almost 95 years ago, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feels surprisingly modern. Not in any superficial sense; the acting is melodramatic, the sets are mostly painted backdrops, irising abounds, and dialogue is conveyed through intertitles. Rather, the distancing effect of these technical elements are part of what keeps this film feeling fresh. In addition, Caligari, often called the first horror movie, finds its horror not in gigantic creatures or space aliens, but in singularly despicable human behavior. Sad though it may be to say, that’s one type of horror that will probably never go out of style.

Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) has a side business exhibiting a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), as a carnival act. Meanwhile, the town where they appear is the site of several mysterious murders. Could there be a connection? Of course there is: Caligari controls Cesare through hypnotism and uses him as an assassin for hire. The fact that there is no obvious motive behind the murders just makes them that much creepier, a feeling that deepens when it turns out that Caligari is a dabbler in the black arts and thinks he’s duplicating the feats of an 18th century monk from whom he took the names “Caligari” and “Cesare”.

Caligari is rightly lauded for its audacious production design by Walter Riemann, Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm. Nothing is naturalistic in the world they create, with bizarre angles, crazy patterns, and distorted proportions setting the film in a stage-like world obviously not our own. This fierce embrace of the artificial is one reason for the film’s continuing ability to connect to audiences, because conventions that seemed transparently true to life ten or twenty years ago can seem laughably stilted today. In contrast, films that emphasize their own constructed nature often remain watchable much longer because their obvious lack of interest in mimicking physical reality cues the audience to mentally enter the world created by the filmmaker and leave their real-world expectations behind.

Although few films from the sound era embrace artificiality as consistently as Caligari, its visual influence can be seen in many subsequent horror movies of both the classic and not-so-classic variety. Examples include the “floating women in nightgowns” imagery of Tod Browning’s Dracula, the painted backdrops of the graveyard scene in James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the menacing, shuffling walk used by the monster in both Frankenstein and in later films in the Mummy franchise. The theme of the over-reaching scientist also became a horror staple, from Victor Frankenstein to Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) in Tarantula.

The source of horror in Caligari feels modern because it is based in the enslavement of one person by another, an enslavement not carried out by whips and chains but through mental control. Also true to modern life, in Caligari the townspeople only become concerned with this horror when members of their community start dying: presumably they would have been perfectly content to be entertained by the enslaved Cesare had there been no consequences for them.

The Kino Classics Blu-Ray release of Caligari is a 4K restoration created from the original camera negative by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, with the digital restoration process carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata -- Film Conservation and Restoration of Bologna. Tinting was added to the restored film following the example of the two earliest nitrate prints of the film, while intertitles were taken the camera negative and a 1935 print. The restoration is not perfect, with scratches and other defects more obvious in some sections than others, but it’s quite watchable and a great improvement over the source material (as can be seen in two restoration demonstrations included as extras).

The main extra included with the Kino Classics Blu-Ray release is a 52-minute documentary, “Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema”, directed by Rüdiger Suchsland. The documentary is jam-packed with information about German social and political history, about three-quarters context and one-quarter information specific to Caligari. These details would be particularly useful in film studies classes or for any viewer unfamiliar with the context in which this film was made. Suchsland’s argument is that Caligari reflects the concerns and beliefs of a post-World War I German society during a chaotic time in which the old values and rules had been discarded but nothing equally strong had arisen to replace them. He also floats the idea, put forth by Siegfried Kracauer, that Caligari represented “an unconscious presentiment of Nazism”, in particular throught the figure of the tyrant Caligari who was able to exploit a society only too willing to submit to his will.

Other extras on the disc include an image gallery, two restoration demonstrations, the trailer for the release of the restored version, a booklet essay by film scholar Kristin Thompson, and clips from three other Kino Classics releases: Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, and Nosferatu. English subtitles can be turned on or off (the intertitles are in German) and two soundtracks are included: a conventional orchestral score and a modern score by DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller).






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.