on December 22, 2003
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920)
It has occurred to me many times over the years since I read my first book about monster movies how Germany dominated world cinema before World War II, and how that's changed since. Depressing. The Germans could do almost as good a job as the Japanese at expressing postwar angst, one thinks. One wonders why the Japanese have a whole industry of extreme horror and the Germans have, well, Jorg Buttgereit.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is widely considered the world's first horror film. It really isn't (both Fritz Lang and Robert Weine were both making horror movies for years before Caligari came out, along with Lang's stable of directors who did the films his fevered brain turned out he didn't have time to direct), but it may be the first still widely available. It's also a masterpiece of expressionist cinema, and really should be seen by all serious students of film.
The story centers around Francis (Friedrich Fehler, who spent much more time behind the camera than before it), who relates the story of his odd past few days to a man he meets while out on a walk. He, his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, who made a slew of anti-Hitler films during World War II after leaving Weine's stable), and the woman they both love, Jane (Lil Dagover, one of Germany's most celebrated actresses right up to her 1980 death), encountered an odd sideshow at the town fair. Run by one Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), it's an exhibition of a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt, best known for Casablanca) who has supposedly been asleep for a quarter century, and now can be awakened for short periods by Caligari. The day the fair comes to town, a series of murders begins, and Francis becomes convinced that Caligari is using Cesaire to commit the murders. The truth, however, is far more complex...
Modern viewers who aren't used to silent film will probably be bored, or at least annoyed; depending on which version you get, the background music can be horribly inappropriate for the material, and let's face it, a lot of moviegoers today don't have the patience for subtitles, much less the cards used for dialogue in the silent days. (One longs for someone to do an ambient/gothic soundtrack for this film, as has been done for Metropolis, Nosferatu, and earlier versions of The Phantom of the Opera.) Also, in the silent film days, and especially in expressionist film, facial expressions and gestures are always exaggerated. Caveat viewer, as it were. Those who have gotten used to such things, however (repeated screenings of Shadow of the Vampire should at least give you the idea), will find much to enjoy here.
The main thing to point out is the set design. A thousand-word review cannot even begin to say enough good things about the wonderful sets put together by Herrmann Warm and his colleagues from Die Sturm. Everything in this movie, from the windows to the trees, is completely off-kilter. It's a cubist's worst nightmare; there's not a single right angle to be found anywhere on the set (except, arguably, in Conrad Veidt's lower jaw). The acting gives enough that Weine cold keep the between-scene cards to a minimum and the average Joe can still figure out what's going on, so the film's sixty-seven minutes are far more action than words. Weine weaves together subplot after subplot, and while he could be charged with initiating the idea that love triangles cannot end well in film, it works in the context here.
Yes, there is a great deal to like about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's not as chilling as Nosferatu, but it's certainly capable of grabbing hold and not letting go. *** ½
on March 31, 2003
I first watched "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" in a film class in college. Watching it confused as well as interested me. Visually, the film is incredible. I have to give respect since it is such an important film in history. Although I did not like the overall story, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is a film that everyone should watch at least once, whether you're a film buff or not. It really opens your eyes to differnt techniques and a different style of filmmaking.