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(FILM ONLY REVIEW)
The term 'classic' is often misused in cinema, any film that is in vogue at the time and that does well as the box office is often called a classic by its fans but a real classic has to be more than this. It has to have a lasting appeal and exhibit an influence over its genre; it has to be critically acclaimed as well as being loved by filmgoers. Often we don't realise when a film is truly a classic until a long time after it has been released.
'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' is such a film. Rightly considered by film critics and commentators as one of the greatest horror movies of the silent era and as an early exponent of the German expressionist movement probably one of the most influential films of all time from the later Universal Horror films in the 30's to the film Noir of the 40's and 50's, some of Hitchcock's films and more recently even films such as 'Shutter Island' and 'Edward Scissorhands' all owe a debt stylistic or thematic to this silent film.
Made in 1920 it was directed by Robert Wiene from a screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Wiene was a very important figure in early German cinema although apart from Dr Caligari he never reached the popular success abroad that other German directors like Fritz Lang did.
The terrible story of the evil Dr Caligari and his somnambulist slave Cesare is told in flashback by Francis the film's narrator. Francis and his friend Alan decide to go and see the carnival that has come to their mountain village of Holstenwall. While there they become fascinated by the strange Dr Caligari who displays Cesare a somnambulist who it is claimed when awaken can answer any question put to him. With some misplaced bravado Alan asks Cesare how long he has left to live only to be shocked by the answer that he will be dead by dawn. When this prediction come true Francis suspect that Cesare and Dr Caligari are actually to blame. With the help of his Betrothed Jane Francis spies on Caligari to try and get proof of his guilt, unknowingly putting his own safety and that of Jane at risk. Before long Francis uncovers a sinister plot involving a monk called Caligari, who, over a hundred years before visited towns in northern Italy and used a trained sleepwalker to murder people while they slept in a similar way to Alan. All this is mysterious enough but soon things get even stranger.
So much can be said about this film. As one of the first exponents of German expressionism in film its look and style is still jarring to modern audience. The film emerged from the austerity, the gloom and fear that pervaded Germany after WWI. It also drew on the rise of Dadaism and surrealism in European art and the ideas of Sigmund Freud on the nature of dreams and psychoanalysis.
Originally through necessity from a lack of big budgets and resources; electricity was rationed at this time, the first expressionist films used elaborate set designs representing extreme non-realistic backdrops often using absurd geometry; buildings leaning over at impossible angles window and door out of scale, light and dark areas including shadows painted on walls and floor to emphasise the effect of real lighting. The expressionist filmmakers often dealt with stories exploring the human mind and its failings, madness insanity emotional turmoil were all key features of the stories rather than romance or action adventure. In this respect 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' dealing with sleepwalking, hypnotism, madness and murder ticks all the right boxes. Just like the jagged set seen at strange angles the characters and story are not quite in a straight line, like a dream they are slightly beyond our grasp in an alternative reality. Can we trust what we see? Is the narrator reliable? Can the characters trust their own senses, their view of the world? All this adds to the mystery of the story and to the appeal of the film.
The style of the narrative is also worth mentioning. The way that the story is told through flashbacks by a narrator is also groundbreaking; it is one of the earliest examples in cinema of a story unfolding in this fashion. It was also unusual in the complexity of the story and it provides us with one the earliest example of a twist-in-the-tale ending of a film.
The look of the film is startling even disturbing. The odd looks of the sets and the heavy makeup of the lead actors; eye-shadowed and white powdered pale, all lit from below using on screen iris-circles to emphasise the look gives a nightmarish vision to the story. To a modern audience used to films with dialogue the actor in silent films tend to look as if they are overacting and being overly expansive in the physical movements and facial expression an yet in the context of the subject matter in this film this adds to the eerie otherworldly atmosphere.
The cast included Conrad Veidt as the sleepwalking Cesare who later became a well known actor in Hollywood starring in such films as 'The Thief of Baghdad' and most famously 'Casablanca'. In this film he gives a sensitive performance as the pitiful Cesare trapped in a living hell as the sleepwalking slave of Dr Caligari. Like the monster in Frankenstein the audience despite his actions is eventually won over by his tragic plight. In the lead role Werner Krauss is sensational as the sinister Caligari. His portrayal of the evil madman is truly one of the most sensational of the silent film era and brought him worldwide acclaim. Starting off an s a serious Shakespearean actor he soon embraced his new fame and became adept at playing villainous demonic characters. Of the rest of the cast the only other of note is Lil Dagover who plays Jane the fiancée of the narrator Francis. Looking beautiful as the damsel in distress this film launched her hugely successful career in German cinema and later she had the dubious honour of being acclaimed as Hitler's favourite actress.
With today's' CGI laden horror movies and stand out special effects it is still a huge testament to the craftsmanship and artistic genius of the makers of 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' that it can still surprise and audience by the strangeness of it visuals and inventiveness of the story.
CAST AND TECH DETAILS
Werner Krauss...Dr. Caligari
Lil Dagover...Jane Olsen
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski...Alan
Rudolf Lettinger ...Dr. Olsen
Many DVD versions of the film can be found varying in quality and length anything from 50 min to 72 min, to get the full effect seek out one with the full footage, the best I believe is from Kino International but might only be available as a region 1 import. Unusually for a silent film release this version also has quite a few extras. The film carries a UK certificate U.
If you are one of the many film lovers these days don't venture beyond the era of colour films let alone black and white or silent movies, this is real shame because you are missing out on some of the best film ever made. If you were only to see one film from the silent era than 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' is probably the one you should see.
© Mauri 2011