Danny Peary, the writer of the Cult Films movie books has heralded this film as the first cult movie and the start of arthouse cinema and I would have to agree with him. The script tells a story within a story with the main character telling a friend about the murders that occurred in a small super weird looking and abstractly constructed town. A mysterious carnival barker has arrived to exhibit to the public Cesare, a somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt. Doing the show, the companion of the main character is told by Cesare that his time is short and will die by dawn. This happens and is part of a series of mysterious deaths no one can solve.
Even though this is silent film, one everyone seems to think they know, I won't spoil it much. There are twists and turns you might not suspect for such an old movie and as familiar as people are with the imagery from this film, few really know what happens in it. I have seen it several times and was surprised at how much I forgot, including that there is more than one twist at the end.
In some ways the fantastical look of the sets and characters takes away from the story telling and in other ways it IS the story telling. It could be argued that its twisted streets and bizarre characters are hints as to what is really going on. This is one of the few pure expressionistic films made that influences film makers still this day. Not a fan of remakes, this one might be interesting if it could be done with no commercial considerations in mind as a pure experiment, maybe even as an animated project that could push the look and abstractness to levels not dreamed of in the silent era. I might even try a shot or two myself because it is such a challenge.
Silent films are not for everyone, but they are for students of cinema and there is a lot for this film to teach us still.