Classic Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Arguably the first horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is an indelible part of film history and a cohesive idea that simply works.

Review:  When you’re studying to become a filmmaker, you run into all kinds of rules, stated or implied.  Filmmakers develop most of these to guide their own works, but soon enough they’re foisted on everybody else, and by necessity it becomes a creative act to reject good advice.  The first psychological thriller, and arguably the first horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, is evidence that our postmodern rules of visual storytelling often obscure the power of simplicity.

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is the stylistic antithesis of the excessively busy, painfully impatient, and overproduced postmodern film.  The filmmakers used the limitations of silence, locked-down camera angles, and (by our standards) long takes to its advantage.  ‘Caligari’, of course, pre-dates the demands of postmodern filmmaking, which puts an emphasis on extreme camera movement and rapid cutting between different angles.  What ‘Caligari’ testifies is that the image’s union with the story is the most important thing.  Because of the exquisite compositions and a pacing that’s rooted in the performances, the film is hypnotic.  The set design is oft-cited for a very good reason, with crazed lines and distorted spaces reflecting the madness central to the film’s story.  The performances are purposefully exaggerated and always crystal clear.  I think most films would be better off taking a page from the silent era and letting the actors communicate as much as possible without dialog.

The film is an indispensable experience for cinephiles and budding filmmakers.  Its influence continues in almost every horror film produced today, as well as in filmmakers such as Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Alex Proyas, and God knows who else.


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