Before the Terminator, Hannibal Lecter, and Norman Bates, there was Cesare, the somnambulist of one of the deepest psychological films of all time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Filmed in Berlin in 1919, Caligari blew a strong breath of imaginative vision onto the rapidly expanding world of moviemaking. The film's narrator, Francis, leads us through a trip he takes one day to the town fair with his friend Alan and his fiancée, Jane.
There they see an exhibition by a strange doctor and his somnambulist, Cesare, who has been sleepwalking under hypnosis for twenty-five years. Cesare is said to predict the future. As a joke, Alan asks Cesare what is in his future. Cesare replies, "You will die at dawn." The friends all laugh and go about the fair. Alan turns up murdered at dawn. Cesare is the prime suspect.
The degree of psychological terror astounded audiences at the time. Like an expressionist stage, Caligari's sets are jagged, angular landscapes with many levels and dimensions. They create a sense of foreboding around the sinister doctor and the inept efforts of the police to capture Cesare, who manages to kidnap Jane and disappear. Oversize doors, curved windows, and arching walkways exude a queasy feeling of unsteadiness as the characters move about. The iris on the camera opens and closes to signal scene beginnings and endings.
The police finally capture and kill Cesare, but they cannot catch the doctor. When Cesare's coffin turns up empty, Francis insists that Caligari has escaped into a mental institution. He cannot get a list of patients from the head of the institution — who has an uncanny resemblance to the missing doctor.
Francis wigs out at the sight and is carted out in a straitjacket. The doctor coolly wipes his glasses and remarks, "He kept screaming that I am the legendary eleventh-century Dr. Caligari. How peculiar." Yes, indeed. For all its sinister melodrama, Caligari is a must-see for film lovers, not to mention horror film fans.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is at the Madstone Theaters, with an original sound track performed live by the Boston-based Devil Music Ensemble, on Sunday, April 4.