Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Review

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover
Genre: Mystery, Horror, Expressionism

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the most important films of the silent era, not only to German expressionist films, but films in general, at the time and for all future films to come.

The plot follows Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist, Cesare, a man he has under hypnosis. Caligari has Cesare as an exhibition at a local fair, and claims that he can see into anyone's future. A man asks Cesare how long he has to live and Cesare tells him until dawn tomorrow. Tomorrow at dawn Dr. Caligari commands Cesare to go and kill the man, which he does. Dr. Caligari is then subject to investigation by many of the town's residents.

As the film progresses we learn some of Caligari's motives, and Cesare's inability to murder that which is beautiful. There are a few twists throughout the plot and this film is noted as having the first twist ending in cinema. That's a pretty big first if you ask me, though I suppose it was an inevitable first as novels have had twist endings for quite a while. It's also one of the first films to use a frame story (story within a story), and is one of the finest examples of German expressionism.

The sets are really the highlight here, almost theatrical in appearance. Twisted hallways, slanted windows, crooked doorways, all make a very surreal atmosphere, all complimented with great use of lighting and shadows, making for a wonderfully twisted and Gothic film. 

This is perhaps one of the most stylish films ever, something I think many newer films tend to ignore. Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer who believed cinema to be a new medium for artistic expression and believed it was something that required not only cameramen, actors, and directors, but also writers and painters. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often considered one of the first art films, and arguable even the first cult film, playing for nearly a decade straight at a theatre in Paris during the '20s.

The house of Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Said to be an allegory for war, which makes sense being that both writers were soldiers in the, at the time, very recent World War I. Dr. Caligari sends out his servant to do his killings just as governments send out their people to do theirs.

The soundtrack to the one I've watched (I've watched this about half a dozen times and I've only seen one version with a different soundtrack) which I believe is the original, is actually very suiting to the film. I've watched many silent films where the music seemed to be there simply as filler. But the sound here greatly compliments what is occurring on screen. 

Cesare wielding a knife in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The film was directed by Robert Wiene, and he is generally only recognized for this film, but he went on to direct some more German expressionist films, two notable ones being Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire and The Hands of Orlac, both horror films and both very decent films though I wouldn't call them as good as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

A great example of stunning set design in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

A fine example of early horror but it's not really scary. It can be creepy at times and I'm sure time hasn't done it much good, but it really plays out more like a mystery, but it definitely has many horror elements and though The Hunchback of Notre Dame is widely regarded as the film that set the mold for many horror films, it seems as The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have been influenced by this.

A necessary viewing for any fan of horror, German expressionism, silent films, or even just students of film in general.

Recommended for: fans of German Expressionism, students of cinema

4.5/5 stars
Purchase The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: DVD

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