Often sited as one of the greatest horror films of the silent era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 German movie and a prime example of German Expressionism. Written by first time screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, the script is generally considered to feature the first twist ending in cinematic history. The main thrust of the story is presented in flashback in which a young man called Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounts a series of terrible murders that took place in the small town of Holstenwall. His story speaks of a Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who, at a local fair, unveils a fortune telling somnambulist (sleep-walker) whom he is able to control using hypnosis. When murder strikes the small town, the finger is pointed at Caligari and his attraction.
This movie is one which I’ve wanted to see for several years and heard nothing but good things about. It’s with regret then that I have to report that I was often bored by the story. Ending aside, I found it dull and was too often confused by developments. I’m certainly going to pin some of the blame on a poor quality DVD which I bought from the normally reputable Fopp but even seeing through this, I didn’t fall in love with the film. Despite my lack of enjoyment with regards to the plot, the film has much to offer even the most casual film buff.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is best known to modern audiences for its highly stylised look, a perfect example of the delightfully artistic German Expressionist era. The flashback scenes are designed without a right angle in sight, with walls, doors and windows jutting or protruding at unnatural angles and mixed with devilishly spiky trees and deep, forbidding shadows. The lighting and use of shadow is a precursor to production techniques made famous in film noir and here create high contrast between light and dark. The actor’s faces are ‘lit’ by high contrast white makeup and this allows them to pop against the largely painted backdrops. The sets, with their backdrops, are works of art and wonderfully create an off kilter world which backs up the narrative and makes more sense to the audience as the film progresses. The use of perspective messes with the mind as sets appear to shrink and disappear into the distance like Alice trying to reach the end of the corridor. The way in which characters are framed with spotlights also brings out their faces against the busy background and helps draw the eye with the director forcing his audience’s focus to dart across the screen.
The movie employs an interesting, if unusual, acting style in which some of the cast appear to almost dance around the sets. There is overly dramatic creeping, stretched tiptoeing and running with legs bent high in the air. The impish Cesare (Conrad Veidt) moves as though not human and love interest Jane (Lil Dagover) also exhibits an unnatural presence. By today’s standards, it could be argued that the cast are overacting but their pronounced facial expressions and flailing limbs match the tone of the film. In short, it works. Coupled with the absence of dialogue, their faces need to express more than their modern counterparts and the emotion is told often without the need for intertitles. Speaking briefly about the intertitles, they, in the version of the film I saw, also match the jagged nature of the sets and were at times unreadable. It’s a real shame that a poor quality mounting of a silent film can have such a disastrous effect upon one’s enjoyment.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film that I would certainly watch again. I’d hope to have a better quality DVD that would make it easier for me to like the movie but on this occasion I was slightly disappointed. The film is bold and flamboyant and its visuals will stick with me. Although influential and beautifully stylised, I couldn’t get on board with the plot until it was too late but would still recommend it to anyone with an interest in silent film or horror.
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