The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Introduction

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is a 1920 German silent horror film, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, it tells the story of an insane hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders. The film features a dark and striking visual style, with sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines, structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles, and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets.

The script was inspired by various experiences from the lives of Janowitz and Mayer, both pacifists who were left distrustful of authority after their experiences with the military during World War I. The film's design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one. The film has been characterized as presenting themes on brutal and irrational authority; the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity; the subjective perception of reality; and the duality of human nature.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released just as foreign film industries were easing restrictions on the import of German films following World War I, so it was screened internationally. Accounts differ as to its financial and critical success upon release, but modern film critics and historians have largely praised it as a revolutionary film. Critic Roger Ebert called it arguably "the first true horror film", and film reviewer Danny Peary called it cinema's first cult film and a precursor to arthouse films. Considered a classic, it helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema and had a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir, introducing techniques such as the twist ending and the unreliable narrator to the language of narrative film.


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