Made in 1919, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” was literally years ahead of its time and remains a triumphant accomplishment in the genre of German Expressionism. Remembered mainly for its stunning sets, which featured crooked buildings and twisted landscapes, “Cabinet” also boasts one of the first attempts at a twist ending, something quite new and shocking for its time.
Told mainly from the point of view of Francis, a young man who lives in the small village of Holstenwall, Germany, “Cabinet” tells the tale of murder and madness which seems to accompany the arrival of a carnival. Francis and his best friend Alan go to the carnival and are presented with the sideshow attraction Cesare the Somnambulist, a gaunt and hideous young man who spends his life sleeping in a coffin-like cabinet and seems able to predict the future when awake. Cesare (played by a young Conrad Veidt, who later went on to play the evil Nazi general in Casablanca) informs Alan that he will soon die, and indeed, Alan is found murdered the next morning. Suspicion turns to the eerie somnambulist and his strange keeper, a man called Caligari. As Francis desperately tries to solve the mystery and find his friends killer, it seems that the beautiful young Jane, beloved by both Alan and Francis, has been targeted as the next victim.
This is a genuinely creepy film which delves deep into the mysteries of the abnormal mind…an uncomfortable journey to say the least. Everyone is suspect and, in the end, we must ask ourselves: “who is really the mad one here?”
Subtle and ingenious, we see the world the way an insane person might see it; warped and confused, a nightmarish terrain where nothing makes sense and balance is not to be found.
The impact of this film is still being felt and seen today, and for good reason. It is a shocking, disturbing masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough.