In this seminal silent classic, a doctor showcases a fortune-telling sleepwalker to a crowd of spectators. One man asks, “When will I die?” The sleepwalker says, “By dawn tomorrow.” And then the doctor sets out to fulfill the premonition by ordering his catatonic slave to murder the man that night.
This isn’t just how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins — it’s also how we begin the entire history of horror movies. Robert Wiene’s terror tale predates any other known feature horror films and remains one of the most enduring films of the silent era. Wiene’s chiaroscuro, dreamlike sets brought the German expressionist movement to film in a beguiling manner that has influenced other filmmakers for decades (Tim Burton most especially). And it isn’t just style for style’s sake. As the story unfolds, the expressionist designs come to reflect a growing madness that casts doubt on our characters, including the film’s narrator, a witness to the doctor’s deeds. At one point, the doctor even looks directly in the camera — indicting the film itself and us, the audience, as participants in his grand scheme.
Silent films aren’t everyone’s bag. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari moves faster than most, apart from some lengthy, scrolling text cards. Apart from its stylistic importance, it features a comedically wicked performance from Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari and suitably creepy one from Conrad Veidt as Cesare, his sleepwalking killer. Horror fans owe it to themselves to experience the film, not only to pay homage to the birth of the genre, but also to recognize all the ways in which it remains a touchstone.