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Movie Crash Course: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)


Full disclosure: I watched this after a completely exhausting week, after a big meal, and actually dozed off a couple times during the proceedings.  But my roommate was watching too, and he was awake through the whole thing.  And neither one of us really got what the hell was going on.

It starts out with a pair of men on what looks like a park bench somewhere; a woman walks by them in a daze, and the younger man – named Francis – points her out, explaining to the older man that she is his fiancee and remarking that they’ve been through a lot together…flashback a couple years, to the younger man’s small-town past in a German hamlet, where he and his best buddy were young swells about town both competing for the heart of the local beauty. On a lark all three visit a local carnival, and attend a side show run by the mysterious Dr. Caligari, a newcomer with a mysterious act. Dr. Caligari is a hypnotist, it seems, who keeps another man in a permanent sleep, locked up in a coffin-size cabinet; he wakes the man, Cesare, to tell people’s fortunes. Francis’ buddy Alan playfully asks Cesare how long he’s going to live, and Cesare tells him “not past dawn.”

Well, bummer. Especially since later that night Cesare fullfills the prophecy by killing him.

After a couple more murders, Francis starts to get suspicious and spies on Dr. Caligari and Cesare, and discovers that Dr. Caligari has been sending the zombie-like Cesare out on his murderous missions. He and the police give chase, trailing the Doctor to the local insane asylum, surprised when he walks in.  Francis follows, losing Dr. Caligari in the place; he seeks help from some of the doctors, who theorize that Dr. Caligari may be the asylum’s own director, who’s been acting a little weird lately.  They peruse the director’s journals, finding that the director has started to believe that he is the reincarnation of the famous mystic Caligari.  Francis and the doctors are understandably shocked, so they lay in wait, capture “Dr. Caligari” and victoriously consign him to a padded cell, ending his reign of terror.

And then things go totally St. Elsewhere. Francis and his older companion get up from the park bench and wander into a courtyard where a cluster of people is all milling around, behaving…oddly. A woman plays an imaginary piano, a man pretends to be Napoleon.  Francis sees his girlfriend in the crowd and tries to sweet talk her, but she rebuffs him because…she is queen. He then sees Cesare sitting by a wall and cuddling a flower, and warns his companion “don’t let him tell your fortune or you’ll die!”  And when an older man walks in: “Dr. Caligari!” Francis screams.  “You all think I’m insane, but it’s not me, it’s him! Dr. Caligari!” He freaks out, the guards swarm in, and lock Francis in the padded cell.  And outside, Dr. Caligari – who, in truth, is the manager of the insane asylum – remarks that someday he’ll have figured out how to cure Francis.

The end.

Cue the roommate and I looking at each other, then going on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell just happened.

The unreliable-narrator trope isn’t actually that complicated, I’ll admit.  But the production has a lot of unrealistic elements, so it was hard to really trust anything. All the sets are obvious flat painted boards in bizarre shapes – huge isocoles-triangle doors, chairs like plinths, a vase made out of crepe paper and shaped like a four-foot wedding cake. Even the title cards are done up in stylized blocky lettering.  It’s actually a perfect example of German expressionist design – but to our 21st-century eyes, it comes across more like “Dr. Seuss is tripping balls”.



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