“How long will I live?” asks Alan, gazing up at the Miraculous Cesare, somnambulist star of a sideshow attraction. His eyes stare dead ahead, his lithe body poised at the foot of the stage in front of the gathered crowd.
“Until the break of dawn,” the sleepwalker intones.
That’s the line that hooked me in about 21 minutes into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1920 silent horror classic directed by Robert Wiene. There’s a great restoration of the film, complete with color tinting over on Shudder, and despite the overly dramatic stage acting still in vogue in the early days of cinema, the gorgeous set design and clever plot mechanics (complete with the already requisite 3rd act “twist”) makes for a fun foray into early horror.
THE QUICK SUMMARY: In the twisted town of Holstenwall a mysterious man sets up his latest attraction: Cesare, the Miraculous Somnambulist. At the same time the town is beset with a series of murders? Could the two things be related? Who is the dark and ominous Dr. Caligari, and what of the fate of young Francis and his love, Jane?
The real draw of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari lies in its amazing surrealist set design. The choice to go bold and stylized matches the dramatic acting of the film, and the tinting only enhances the work done by The film’s design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who oversaw the production design. The makeup too lends a striking visage for Conrad Veidt, who plays the sleepwalking Cesare, and his performance is the pin that holds the terror together. By the very nature of his role he has a more methodical, paced presence and it pays off the first time Wiene and cinematographer Willy Hameister close in on Veidt’s face, and his eyes slowly open.
The plot is more than it appears, and though by now in the 21st century we’re used to the conceits of late act twists I can imagine how it much have played in 1920 – the framing device seems like one thing, and then becomes quite another by the film’s end. Ultimately I think this is an essential film to see the origins of horror on film, even thought the overt terror has passed.
There’s still Cesare’s eyes, and the way the world warps and wraps around its terrified inhabitants.