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Film / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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Alan: How long will I live?
Cesare: Till the break of dawn.

Silent German expressionist horror film made in 1920, starring Werner Krauss as the eponymous mad doctor and Conrad Veidt as the fortune-telling sleepwalker Cesare (pronounced "CHEH-zah-ray"), who lives inside the cabinet.

Supposedly, the film was intended to be an anti-authoritarian story, inspired by the military hospitals in World War I when "malingering" soldiers were confined under manipulative doctors, but Executive Meddling strongly diluted this message. See the trivia section for details.

This film is best-known for its extremely messed-up set design: All the angles are crooked, the shadows are painted onto the sets, and it's all made out of paper. Notably, some sets are twisted versions of World War I battlefields.

This movie is frequently homaged by music videos (see Rob Zombie's "Living Dead Girl", Rainbow's "Can't Let You Go" and "Otherside" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers). In 2005, it received an indie remake starring Doug Jones, of Pan's Labyrinth fame, which digitally imposed the new actors onto the original set. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Doug Jones also had a small role in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, a movie that owes a lot to the German Expressionist style.)

In addition to being the first psychological thriller, this movie also received one of the first-ever Viral Marketing campaigns for a movie: Before its premiere, German streets were plastered with posters that read "Du mußt Caligari werden!" ("You must become Caligari!") without telling you anything about the fact that they tied in to a movie.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was tremendously influential in cinematic history, as all the Trope Maker examples below attest. It is in the public domain and may be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

An In Name Only remake, The Cabinet of Caligari, was released in 1962, and an unofficial sequel, Dr. Caligari, in 1989.

Note: Unmarked spoilers below!

This movie provides examples of various tropes:

  • All Just a Dream: At the end of the film, the story of Francis' struggle against the murderous Caligari and Cesare turns out to be just that, a story. The real "Caligari" turns out to be the director of the asylum where Francis, Jane, and Cesare are inmates.
  • And You Were There: Most of the characters turn out to have real-world counterparts hanging around the asylum. The absence of an equivalent for Alan implies that although the bulk of the film wasn't completely accurate, it wasn't a total fantasy, either.
  • Art Shift: The parts that Francis is imagining have the famously psychotic set design, some of which are twisted version of battlefields in World War I.
  • Bedlam House: The asylum in which Francis is revealed to be an inmate at the end of the film is only slightly less surreal than the sets in the story he is telling his fellow inmate. (The cell in which Caligari is thrown at the end of Francis' story notably re-appears as the cell in which Francis himself is thrown when he attacks "Caligari".)
  • Big Bad: Caligari in Francis' story, with Cesare as The Dragon, but it turns out that in reality the film has No Antagonist.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Almost every scene is distorted. There are no right angles, no straight lines, and many surfaces are covered with wild, swirling patterns. The two scenes which appear otherwise normal are the asylum courtyard, and asylum atrium.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: Cesare. According to Francis, anyway.
  • Cassandra Did It: Initially seems to be the case, with Cesare's prophecy about Alan's death. The twist ending casts some doubt on this, though.
  • Circus of Fear: Probably the Trope Maker. That is one creepy circus.
  • Cuckoo Nest: The film represents one of the most notable uses of this trope where the character being told his account of events is just a hallucination really is insane. None of Francis' version of events really happened (or at least not as he described them); they were, instead, the literal ramblings of a madman. Unless, of course, they aren't...
  • Damsel in Distress: Cesare tries to kidnap Jane.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Caligari is a hook-nosed man in a top hat and black cape (an Inverness coat called "Havelock" in German) to be precise). He doesn't have the moustache, but he almost makes up for that with his impressive sideburns.
  • Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: Cesare and Francis.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Probably the Trope Maker for the film medium, and it's executed in a very effective and surprising manner even for today's standards.
  • Excessive Evil Eyeshadow: Cesare wears black makeup underneath his eyes. Notably, it's absent in the final scene where he appears as a harmless mental patient.
  • Evil Old Folks: Caligari — or at least, that's how Francis sees him.
  • For Science!: Caligari wants to know if he can convince a sleepwalker to do things they would find abhorrent while awake. Just because. Or at least, that’s what Francis thinks Caligari wants.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Caligari's spectacles make him look much creepier.
  • Foreshadowing: Turns out all that Bizarrchitecture wasn't just weird for the sake of weird. The complete unreality of the sets is a hint that the story Francis is telling isn't real. Note that the common room at the insane asylum looks relatively normal.
  • Framing Device: Francis and the old man sitting in the courtyard.
  • German Expressionism: The Trope Maker, or at least, Trope Codifier.
  • Homage: It's received so many homages, mostly from Tim Burton, that it has become subject to Parody Displacement.
  • Insane Equals Violent: Averted in the final scene, where most of the inmates — Cesare included — are portrayed as harmless.
  • Intended Audience Reaction: The sets. If they weren't so stylized, they would look cheap and unconvincing. Instead, their obvious artificiality just adds to the Surreal Horror of the film.
  • Iris Out: A common trope in the day, and used many times in this film. The one that ends the film is particularly chilling.
  • Jack the Ripoff: A villager takes advantage of Cesare's killing spree to try to cast off suspicion from his own attempt. The result is that it actually takes suspicion away from Cesare.
  • The Killer in Me: It's very subtly implied — through the Love Triangle at the beginning, the Shadow Discretion Shot of Alan's murder, Alan's absence from the final scenes at the asylum, and the revelation that Francis is insane — that Alan's murder may have been the only true part of Francis' story, in which case, Francis himself was probably the killer, and might have been thrown into Caligari’s asylum as a result.
  • Kubrick Stare: The anonymous attempted murderer (played by an uncredited Rudolf Klein Rogge, of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Metropolis fame) gives one from his cell.
  • Looks Like Cesare: The Trope Maker.
  • Madness Mantra: "I must know everything." And "You must become Caligari."
  • Madness Montage: Surely the Trope Maker, with the "Du musst Caligari werden" scene described below under Room Full of Crazy.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Caligari is initially presented as one. It's hard to tell whether he's genuinely mad or not, though.
  • Mind-Control Eyes: The mind controlled Cesare reveals a particularly demented stare when Dr. Caligari first wakes him up.
  • Mind Screw: The sets are surreal. In fact, if you compare actual World War I photos to some scenes, you'll find that some of the movie scenes are twisted version of battlefields.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Caligari is a subversion, since the character turns out to be a fairly harmless psychiatrist (maybe), and Francis is perceiving him as a Diabolical Mastermind.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Alan's murder resolves the love triangle of which he is a part with Jane and Francis.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: If you meet a guy who may be named after one of the Borgias, don't mess with him.
  • No Ending: "Now I can cure him." The End.
  • No Name Given: Apparently Dr. Caligari renamed himself and Cesare after the legendary 17th-century doctor and somnambulist he wished to emulate. We never learn what Dr. Caligari and Cesare's original names were.
  • No Sneak Attacks: Averted, as Cesare's victims are killed in their sleep. His, too.
  • Only Sane Man: Francis believes he is this, both in the story he tells his fellow inmate and in the actual asylum, where he tries to warn the inmates that "Caligari" is planning their doom, and that they will all die at dawn.
  • Organ Grinder: Well, not every attraction at the fair is a creepy old guy with a murderous zombie in a box.
  • Psycho Psychologist: In Francis' ostensible delusion, Caligari is the director of an asylum who uses his position to manipulate the somnambulist Cesare to do his bidding.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Jane Olsen.
  • The Reveal: Possibly another Trope Maker for film history.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Caligari sets Cesare on Jane to get revenge on her father for meddling in his affairs. Or at least he does so in Francis’s delusional story.
  • Roofhopping: Cesare, in probably the film's most famous scene, climbs across rooftops to Jane's window.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Or Scenery Full of Crazy — Dr. Caligari hallucinates the phrase "DU MUSST CALIGARI WERDEN" (YOU MUST BECOME CALIGARI) appearing all over the scenery once he gets the inspiration to mimic the legendary Dr. Caligari.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Alan, murdered by Cesare (or Francis himself) to kick the plot into gear.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: It's easy to predict when someone will die if you go and kill them.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: One unnamed character tries to murder his landlady and disguise it as the work of the Serial Killer who is already terrorizing the town.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: The struggle of Alan and his murderer, and the murderer stabbing Alan to death, is only shown by the shadows on the wall of Alan's room. Though we see shots of Alan's terrified face, the murderer is never actually seen except as a shadow. The later events seem to reveal that the murderer was Cesare; however the Twist Ending reveals that Francis is delusional, and points to the possibility that he himself was the murderer.
  • Sleeping Dummy: On the third attempt, Caligari kept a puppet in the open cabinet, to divert suspicion from Cesare. It looked like him from the window.
  • Sleepwalking: Cesare is a somnambulist.
  • Surreal Horror: As mentioned before, this movie looks really weird.
  • Talkative Loon: Francis, although we don't realize it till the end. This trope is also the final fate of poor Jane.
  • Things That Go "Bump" in the Night: Cesare sneaks into people's windows and stabs them in the middle of the night.
  • To Know Him, I Must Become Him: "I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!"
  • Torches and Pitchforks: A mob ends up chasing Cesare for so long that he dies of exhaustion.
  • Touch of the Monster: The Pietà Plagiarism on the cover is the first in film.
  • Twist Ending: It's All Just a Dream and Francis is crazy. Also, supposedly the Trope Maker for the film medium.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Francis' story of his and Jane's romance and their struggle against Caligari and Cesare is revealed at the end of the film to be part of his delusions.
  • Villainous Breakdown: When Caligari sees that Cesare has died, he goes even more crazy than he already was, at least in Francis’s story.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: In the poster, Cesare (clad in black) appears menacingly kidnapping an innocent, helpless-looking maiden clad in white.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Even while sleepwalking and hypnotised, Cesare apparently can't bring himself to stab a woman. He just kidnaps her instead.
  • The X of Y: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • Zombie Gait: Cesare makes yet another trope.