Between the convenience of vast streaming libraries and the IP-driven blockbusters flooding cinemas, we simply don’t consume our popular entertainment the way we used to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different. With the smorgasbord of on-demand stuff readily available, a unique challenge has manifested: Second screening.
We’re all guilty of it; scrolling through our phones for entertainment while “watching” our chosen title of convenient entertainment. A harmless habit. Yet, it lends itself to frequenting titles that are easier to follow while executing this form of multitasking. It’s not that we don’t enjoy movies, we’ve just changed the environment of which we engage them.
Perhaps that’s why I find myself warming-up towards the horror genre as I get older …
Outside of a few notable exceptions, say for Silence of the Lambs or the original Psycho, horror was never really my thing. Not until the last three years have I found myself venturing deeper and deeper into the genre. As with anything else, some are fantastic, some less so, but more or less the arena packs an experience that transcends the jump scares and shock value.
Horror (the good ones at least) envelopes the viewer in a way that demands full attention. Face value entertainment being what it is, it may not be so much a growing love for the genre itself but rather a craving for a fully enveloping experience that only certain movies can provide. Horror, psychological thrillers and—yes—silent films feed that need.
Enter Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Often praised as cinema’s first “cult classic”, the twisted and deliciously sinister title is a fully immersive experience unlike any other. In terms of genre, Dr. Caligari not only marks the earliest iteration of substantive horror to reach the screen but gave moviegoers the first glimpse of visual world building, unlocking the vast potential only moving pictures could capture. A masterful achievement of horrific perfection by any measure.
Francis, our strapping young everyman, struggles to balance reality and love. Happening upon a rural, country fair, Francis is enamored with a striking sideshow. Caligari leads the fabled “act” of waking a zombie-like somnambulist, Cesare, from a coffin–wherein he has slumbered for years. The sideshow quickly turns sinister in the wake of Francis’ own struggle to grip reality; the tipping point of which is the murder of his best friend.
With a spree of killing immediately ensuing in a small, nearby town–Francis becomes convinced Caligari’s “zombie”, Cesare, is a puppet committing said crimes under the mind control of Caligari himself. What unfurls is a deep-seated slow fade into a fractured reality and murderous tendencies creating both a haunting psychosis for the leading man and the audience.
We journey with him through (real?) visions; bloody deeds that cannot be washed away gripping us through to the final unveiling (and cinema’s first true surprise ending). Aghast what we just witnessed, we’re left holding the heavy baggage of destructive realization … but in the most brilliant way possible.
Perhaps the most herculean achievement is the narrative itself; complexity abounds, yet proves to be a case study in expansive scope while eliciting human emotion. It asks us to suspend belief, to dwell in a world of exaggerated impressionistic shadow following the trail of a sleepwalking humanlike creature. But it still maintains its empathy throughout, taxing us to carry the simultaneous wonder and guilt that accompanies close brushes with murderous discovery.
Indeed, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is every bit a fantastical portal of horrific escapism as it is an unflinching journey through the reality-bending nature of psychosis.
“I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!”
But the true champion of it all is found in the damn near perfect production design. Stunning seems too limiting to adequately capture the transformative nature of the world building. Set designers Hermann Warm and the two Walters, Reimann and Roehrig, brought 18th Century German impressionism to the silver screen and did so with keen, sharpened flair. Every shot gives the unmissable visualization of suspended reality. What would eventually become trope for the newly established genre, cartoon parodies, and thrillers alike are brought to life in a stunningly practical fashion. Built and shot in 1919, Warm and the Walters quite literally created walls, alleys, windows, and the iconic slanted thresholds to symbolically frame the complex plot. Almost as if the theatrical eras of absurdism and the grotesque had a chilling grandfather.
To watch Dr. Caligari is to see it; to see it is to feel something at the hands of every single shot, each background, foreground, and skyline; and to feel this unique sense of unsettling is to wade in the waters of silent film’s first horror. The casted shadows, the sharp edges, peering around the corners, the subtle murkiness of the lens, and an overtly beautiful aura–if all of that could be bottled up and put on display, it would belong in the Smithsonian.
To swim in the work from directorial titans the likes of Hitchcock, Fincher, and Del Toro is to see a landscape first painted by Wiene’s Caligari. To bask in gory glory of Craven, Carpenter, and Cronenberg is to acknowledge the landmark achievement of a century old narrative. To marvel at the photographed worlds of Friedkin, Burton, and Aster is to pay homage to the old cabinet that came first. The arena of modern horror is filled with the fruit of Dr. Caligari’s tree; a buffet of thrillers celebrating the lineage of which they derive while leaning into the innovative spirit that ignited in 1920. In fact, it may be gracious to encounter such a film and give it thanks alongside our marveling frights.
We call it horror for it plays upon our fears. In this landmark title, the world fashioned within the silent frames is one of picking up clues, one by one; of examining the depravity of controlling another human; of desiring love no matter how imperfect the context; of the helplessness we feel in our own minds; of the looming inevitability that comes with discovering dangerous secrets; of being so certain but still so wrong; of the un-admitted enjoyment found in dabbling in the darkness of the unknown; of the creepy lore of traveling sideshows; of the inability to sleep and capture reality; of the devious souls lurking behind our socially acceptable methods of health and treatment; of the unsettling discovery that you can’t trust yourself; of shock, gore, and utter loss.
Such are the visceral explorations of a narrative so twisted and frightening that it only makes sense through crafting a new definition of which we identify film. Dr. Caligari is, at its core, an unsettling horror touching on many of the most inherent fears and paranoias we carry. Enveloping in the most addicting way, and, ultimately, serves as a blueprint of sorts for every notable counterpart that has arrived in its wake.
And the twist ending? … Well, let’s simply say it’s worth putting down your phone for. Being a certified cult classic and despite its age this is one that best going in fresh; spoiler free. But if your response, after watching, would be to throw a remote through the screen, no one would blame you either.
To call Wiene’s sinister masterpiece ahead of its time feels like an understatement. 100 years later, it still holds up beautifully. If you’ve ventured through the slanted world of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—then you know. But if not, you are in for a treat. Trace numerous tentpoles of horror history through the frames, explore the narrative complexities, and you just may find yourself frightened by the work of a silent film.
Or, if nothing else, enraptured by an old fashioned cinematic experience … no second screen necessary.