Dr Caligari is a bespectacled grinning weirdo who hangs out at carnivals with his pet somnambulist. You wouldn't think people would pay money to see a man sleep, but I suppose it takes all sorts. Then the locals start dying...
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a historically important silent film, though I didn't know that when I randomly picked up the DVD. Apparently it's an important example of German Expressionism, along with The Golem (1920), Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). I'd seen the term employed enough to have picked up a vague idea of what it probably means, but on watching the film, it seemed to translate as "incomprehensible gibberish", so I did some research. It seems that post-WWI German filmmakers in the 1920s couldn't compete with glossy Hollywood fare (plus ca change), so did something different and got all arty and symbolic instead. This movement didn't last long but was remarkably influential, not least when Nazism took hold in the 1930s and many German filmmakers fled to America.
Apparently Tim Burton's films are influenced by this style, especially Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. It's also a heavy influence on the Universal horror films, which are much more cinematic than Hammer's. More precisely, German Expressionism is characterised by surrealism and sets full of strange geometrical designs and unnatural angles. Their storylines would be full of madness and betrayal. In colour this film would look very 1960s and trippy, ironically making me think more of Hammer and the Groovy Age of Horror, but in this shoddy black and white print it's jagged and sinister. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is often called the first horror movie and in fairness that's probably the best way to approach it.
Personally I'd call it hard to watch, in the sense that it fights like a cornered rat against narrative clarity. If I hadn't read up about Expressionism, I'd be using words like "amateurish" and "primitive", although in the rewrite I'd have probably relented and also thrown in "dreamlike". Nosferatu and Metropolis are far easier to understand, although Caligari beats out Metropolis by not crawling on for two sodding hours. Whoops, they just rediscovered the latter's lost footage. Make that three and a half.
Of course everyone knows the story of Nosferatu (i.e. Dracula), while most people wouldn't know what to expect from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. However much of its impenetrability is also down to the script. Its structure is ambitious, with most of the film being related by one of its main characters within a framing sequence. We even get a flashback within this flashback! This is laudable. Ambition is good. However it further burdens an audience struggling with an Expressionist silent film with unrealistic notions of how much plot can be conveyed through dialogue captions. Ironically this film isn't very good at visual storytelling, although I suppose the counter-argument is that that's not what it's trying to do.
The climax is the best example of this. The script originally lacked the framing story with Francis in the garden. However it was suggested (possibly by producers in search of a less macabre ending) that Francis be a lunatic in an asylum and that the entire story be revealed to be just his delusion. Thus Francis's story is shot in a expressionistic manner to reflect his deranged mental state, while the real world is more conventional. However when I watched the film, none of the above even occurred to me. When Caligari shows up as the director of the asylum, I assumed that he'd just taken control somehow and was about to abuse his powers to turn Francis into his next somnambulist. Note the film's last line: "I know how to cure him." These assumptions left me scratching my head as to the exact details of what was going on, but I think I prefer my reading of the ending to the intended one. I thought it was a clever twist and liked the whole film better because of it!
It's too short. Another twenty minutes might have helped things flow better and more comprehensibly. (Hmmm. It seems that the video version I watched is indeed twenty minutes shorter than the original. Maybe I didn't see it in its best light.) However it's also undeniably interesting. Caligari and his faithful Cesare are genuinely creepy, with Werner Krauss as the former looking a bit like an evil Peter Butterworth from a Carry On film.
There's a macabre anecdote connected to this film, incidentally. The scriptwriter Hans Janowitz wrote the part of Jane for his girlfriend Gilda Langer, an actress at Berlin's "Residenz-Theater". Unfortunately the role ended up going to Lil Dagover because Langer died shortly before filming began.
The basic problem with this film is that, like most silent cinema, it's a bit rubbish. There are some excellent silent comedies and my favourite Phantom of the Opera is the original Lon Chaney Sr. version, but today all the rest tends to have more to do with archeology than entertainment. Caligari has been remade several times and as far as I can see, the remakes all seem to work better. Yes, I'm a philistine. Sue me. It's an art form which fights against any efforts to tell a story or even construct a believable world, given much of the acting prevalent at the time. At least with the German Expressionists it's deliberate and they're trying to take it somewhere. It makes for a fascinating object of study, though.
Overall I suspect you'll appreciate this film more if you're well-versed in silent movies and can thus realise how ground-breaking this was. Nosferatu holds up surprisingly well against modern movies, but The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is more of a stretch. However both films can be wonderful for their "time capsule" nature, Nosferatu with its East European peasants and Caligari with its moustachioed German policemen. It's like seeing stiff Victorian-era photographs come to life. It's interesting, I'll give it that. I couldn't recommend it to everyone, but if you care about the history of cinema it's almost a must-see.