Full disclosure: I watched this after a completely exhausting week, after a big meal, and actually dozed off a couple times during the proceedings. But my then-roommate was watching too, and he was awake through the whole thing. And neither one of us really got what the hell was going on.
It opens with a pair of men on a park bench; a woman walks by them in a daze, and the younger man – named Francis – points her out, explaining to the older man that she is his fiancee and remarking that they’ve been through a lot together. He begins his story…flashback a couple years, to the German hamlet where Francis and his best buddy were young swells both competing for the heart of the local beauty. On a lark all three visit a local carnival, and attend a side show run by the mysterious Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist who keeps another man in a permanent sleep, locked up in a coffin-size cabinet. He wakes the man, Cesare, to tell people’s fortunes. Francis’ buddy Alan playfully asks Cesare how long he’s going to live, and Cesare tells him “not past dawn.”
Well, bummer. Especially since later that night Cesare fullfills the prophecy by killing him.
After a couple more murders affect the town, Francis starts to get suspicious of Dr. Caligari and Cesare, discovering that Dr. Caligari has been sending the zombie-like Cesare out on murderous missions. He and the police give chase, trailing the Doctor to the local insane asylum – and are astonished when he easily walks in. Francis follows, losing Dr. Caligari in the place; he consults with the other doctors, who don’t know of any Dr. Caligari – suspect that he may actually be the asylum’s own director, who they confess has been acting a little weird lately. They peruse the director’s journals, finding that the director has started to believe that he is the reincarnation of a famous mystic Caligari. Francis and the doctors ultimately capture “Dr. Caligari” and victoriously consign him to a padded cell, ending his reign of terror.
And then – the ending takes a turn, about which I’ll only say that things go a little St. Elsewhere….
The roommate and I stared at each other in confusion, then spent a few minutes on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell had just happened.
Without spoiling things, I’ll just say that the unreliable narrator isn’t that confusing a trope. But the production has a lot of unrealistic elements, so it was hard to trust anything. All the sets are obvious flat painted boards in bizarre shapes – huge isocoles-triangle doors, chairs like plinths, a vase made out of crepe paper and shaped like a four-foot wedding cake. Even the title cards are done up in stylized blocky lettering. It’s actually a perfect example of German expressionist design – but to our 21st-century eyes, it came across more like “Dr. Seuss is tripping balls”.