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What to Watch Tonight: Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I do not think there is a classic movie-loving person or anyone who has even moderately studied film on the academic front who is not aware and likely a fan of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The picture serves as a great example of silent, horror and German movies as well as an illustration of the German expressionist period.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Besides being a tale of murder and insanity, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also made especially eerie with its sets, designed by prominent Expressionist artists of the day. Depending on the copy you get your hands on, it might also feature tinting, a process by which the frames of film were tinted with a color –in this case three different ones marking daytime, night-time, Jane’s house, and the plot’s framing device. This also works to make everything look additionally off-center.

The story is framed through a man recounting the plot to another person. It is a story of love, murder and a somnambulist –that is to say, a sleep-walker. The Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) of the title operates a circus sideshow (which is also called a cabinet) at which he offers the somnambulist Cesare who will waken and answer any question asked. When one of our characters asks how long he will live, Cesare says not for long. The somnambulist later wanders off in the night to accomplish this task. Cesare is notably portrayed by Conrad Veidt who would go on to play many a Nazi in American-made films, most markedly in Casablanca.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most visually stunning films in history, which is quite a feat given how early into the history of motion pictures it was produced. The film’s use of chiaroscuro was largely created by having shadows painted directly onto the sets rather than producing them with lights. Although not horrifying by the standards of later fright films, the flick is certainly unsettling and thrilling and accomplishes all this without sound. So if you want to kick of the Halloween season right, and can stay up until 3:30 a.m. ET tonight/Tuesday morning, this is a must.

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is set for 3:30 a.m. ET Oct. 4 on TCM.
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