Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Year: 1919
Director: Robert Wiene
Screenplay: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski
Running Time: 71 minutes
Genre Horror, psychological, silent

Summary: A small town in Germany is holding a fair. One of the attractions is the "somnambulist" Cesare (Veidt) who apparently permanently sleeps inside a coffin-like cabinet and awakes only occasionally to do the bidding of his owner and master, the mysterious hypnotist and mystic, Doctor Caligari (Krauss). A series of bizarre murders starts around the same time that Caligari arrives. When Franzis (Feher) and his friend Alan (von Twardowski) visit Caligari's sideshow, Cesare predicts that Alan will be dead by daybreak and, sure enough, that night he falls victim to the mysterious killer. Naturally enough Franzis suspects Caligari and Cesare, however the truth is more complex then it seems.

Opinions: This film is one of the first horror films ever made and is arguably among the most influential being one of, if not the first, examples of a "frame story" and also a twist ending in cinema. Most films, even science-fiction and fantasy films, pay at least some kind of lip-service to some kind of reality. This film doesn't even bother. It belongs to the "German Expressionist" movement which was sweeping German art, theatre as well as cinema in the inter-war years. The film uses bizarre, skewed, flat, painted sets, strange camera angles, and weirdly designed intertitles. Part of the reason for the expressionistic style was the fact that the producers didn't have much money for sets and lighting.
The effect is a genuinely dreamlike experience. Almost every image in the film has some element that is slightly "off", whether in the bizarre angles or designs of the sets, or the exaggerated makeup and costumes of the characters.
It is a must-see for anyone seriously interested in horror films or in film history in general, however some viewers might be put off by the fact that it is a silent film, it moves slowly, the very obvious fakeness and staginess of the production and also the exagerrated and often histrionic acting that was a hallmark of silent films. however, if you can get past this, it is still a powerful and striking experience.
Another word of warning is that the film is in the public domain and therfore exists in a number of different versions and cuts, so as always "buyer beware". I saw it in the cinema with live music, and that is by far the best way to see it and if you ever do get the opportunity to see the film "live" as it were, don't miss it. If not, it is still well worth your time checking it out, but be careful that you get the best version.

Conrad Veidt flees with Lil Dagovar in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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