Werner Krauss in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Everett Collection

It has always been the job of movies to mess with our heads, which you know if you’ve ever seen Robert Wiene’s nerve-jangling work of mad genius The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, now more than 100 years old and as chilling as ever. The unhinged hypnotist Caligari (Werner Krauss) keeps, like a pet, a 23-year-old sleepwalker whom he calls Cesare the Somnambulist (Conrad Veidt). Caligari has put Cesare to work as a sideshow attraction, parading him before audiences as a curiosity. But Caligari also uses this zombie servant to do his murderous bidding. In a shivery, archetypically psychosexual tableau, Cesare, with his zinc-white pallor, his eyes blank and tragic, enters the gauze-shrouded bedroom of a sleeping woman and startles her awake with the aim of killing her. Stunned by her beauty, he loses his nerve and, despite her cries of terror, carries her off, her white nightgown trailing in the stark moonlight. Wiene’s film, with its highly stylized painted-fabric backdrops and its angular, perspective-twisting sets, is a German Expressionist extravaganza, a shout of modernity, beckoning us into its mirror world of fractured visual poetry. Remain only as long as you dare.

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