“I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!”
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, an all-time classic of German and world cinema, may admittedly be the oldest film on this list by some 30 years, but that should not be taken as a damning indictment of the quality of its generation. It is true; the silent era was the cinema of our great-grandparents, and what was revolutionary for them is not so for us. This film, though, remains a fascinating one to watch today, whether from a historical perspective or with an eye for its cinematic influence.
It was made in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s demise in the first World War; a time when German citizens were turning to the arts en masse for relief from the shattering illusions that greeted them in reality. This period also saw the rise of German Expressionism; a filmmaking movement famous for its non-realistic, elaborately angled set design and clever use of shadow to create a unique sense of atmosphere.
Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is seen as one of the signature films of this time, and for good reason; in many ways it encapsulated every aspect of what German Expressionism was known for. This is why I have no problem with listing it as representative of its early cinematic era – because that is precisely what I think it is. It has been called the first true horror movie by some, though its influence can be seen just as well throughout Film Noir.
The dynamic between its title character, Dr. Caligari, and the somnambulist he keeps in his cabinet to do his bidding at night has provided many a critic the opportunity for in-depth analysis. What does this tell us of German society and culture at that time? Some would say it reflected their subconscious need for authority and unwillingness to rebel, going so far as to say the film was a premonition of the rise of the Nazi Party only a few years later. Then there is the famous (at the time, at least) phrase “you must become Caligari”, used extensively in the film’s marketing campaign, and of course its twist ending to consider.
But all of this pales in comparison to the film’s stylistic influence on numerous contemporary filmmakers, including Tim Burton; we see here the roots of his own signature style, known and loved by so many modern audiences. Out of curiosity if nothing else, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari provides you an early glimpse of cinema’s timeless qualities.