Despite CALIGARI's reputation as an obelisk of weirdness, I think the DVD commentary track is correct: this film works because it's a blend of jarring oddity and commercial, consumer-minded techniques. Watching this after the audience-despising GENUINE makes the case even clearer. CALIGARI definitely takes more risks than ZOOKEEPER, but it's got a narrative that human beings who are not tripping on acid can easily follow. It's also one of the first and best horror films ever.
The tale is told by one man to another, this frame being rly important as the film winds down. Francis, the storyteller, recalls the arrival in his town of Dr. Caligari, who exhibits a somnambulist named Cesare at the town's fair. Be thankful that you live in a world of myriad entertainments and don't have to get excited about watching a guy sleep! Caligari rouses Cesare from his years-long, death-like slumber and allows fairgoers to question him. Francis's dull-witted friend Alan asks how long he will live and gets the answer he deserves. And now we have a series of murders, right here in sleepy and angular Holstenwall!
This isn't even close to the entire plot, but CALIGARI offers one of the earliest examples of a feature film with exceptionally intriguing plotting. Twists galore adorn this movie's latter half and cursed be the blog that spoils them. Even discarding the plot, CALIGARI would be worth seeing. As you'd expect given the ground we've already covered, this thing is well-steeped in German expressionism. Sets gape and threaten to consume actors slathered with black eyeliner. Spaces between rooms echo mirrors and prisms. It's all very easy on the eyes.
The acting here is uniformly excellent, too. Werner Krauss as malefic Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the exquisitely-named Lil Dagover as imperiled love interest Jane...everyone fulfills their role perfectly without going into Halle Berry-as-Storm overacting mode. Credit master director Robert Wiene for assembling all of these far-flung strengths into an incredible whole. And for making history's greatest title cards.
I am better at tearing things apart than lavishing praise, probably, but some of themes that CALIGARI explores are worth noting. There's obviously some play with the concept of sleep and dreams vs. wakefulness, and the way that generally plays into the nature of reality...is part of the plot that I cannot reveal.
There's also a ton of focus on eyes and seeing, which is apt considering how skewered the film appears to the first-time viewer. Obviously, the jagged sets force you to recalibrate your normal movie-watching approach, but so many scenes end with people staring at each other or at nothing. Perception and dreams and all such as that. It's what horror is made of!
I feel like I'm not selling this film enough, but you can check Rotten Tomatoes, where it scores a whopping 100% on the Tomatometer, if you need further encouragement. I really feel that Robert Wiene, and Dr. Caligari himself, would be most proud of their Tomatometer accomplishments.
TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2. Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3. The Unknown (1927)
4. Maciste in Hell/Maciste All'Inferno (1925)
5. The Cat and the Canary (1927)
6. Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
7. Wolf Blood (1925)