The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German expressionist films: Part one)
Well it’s Friday and I am feeling the urge to go back, waaaaaay back to the start of horror in the silent era, no, not the very first one, although that could one day happen. Today we’re going to go back before sound and visit The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
To a lot of horror fans, films like the Cabinet are sort of hit or miss. That being said, films of this era are extremely difficult to sit down and watch if you don’t already have a disposition towards this kind of thing.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made in 1919, but released in 1920, it was the first time début of director Robert Wiene and arguably his most famous film. The Screenplay was done by Haris Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The two writers were heavily influenced by Paul Wegner, who at the time was pioneering the expressionist movement in film. Both Janowitz and Mayer became interested in the concept of a man being able to accomplish feats of strength and forecast the future while in a trance after watching a side-show.
There is no way to talk about a film like this without mentioning how it looks. Words can’t really describe it accurately but the visuals were handled by designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reinmann and Walter Wohirg. They employed the same techniques you would see in stage designs, giving the film flat hard-lined set pieces that are wild and distorted representations of that they are supposed to be. Everything from the ground, to the trees to the town itself has this eerie dreamlike feel to it, which is perfect considering the films subject matter.
The film starts off with a man named Francis played by Friedrich Feher setting up the story as a flashback to how he and his betrothed Jane, played by Lil Dagover became engaged.
It then fades to the bizarre looking town of Holstenwall and it just so happens that at this time the town is having a fair. Francis and his friend Alan head off to enjoy themselves. At the same time a mysterious man calling himself Dr. Caligari heads to the town in order to set up his side-show, after dealing with the angry and bossy town clerk he gets a permit. The story takes place over the next few days and while the fair goes on there are a bizarre series of murders that started with the town clerk. Alan and Francis go to Dr. Caligari’s sideshow that features Cesare the Somnambulist, played by Conrad Veidt, who has been asleep 25 years and will only awaken upon his master’s command. Upon his awakening, Cesare will be able to tell the future. So Alan asks how long he has to live, in which Cesare informs him he will die at dawn! Sure enough this happens and the build-up to solve his murder and a series of others takes many twists and turns. This eventually leads back to Dr. Caligari who, in a final act, attempts to have Jane killed. In what is cliché now, Cesare refuses to kill her because he is enchanted by her beauty. This all leads up to the final act of the film.
Now another thing I can’t ignore is the twist ending. Yes a twist ending and widely considered to be the first of its kind. Some directors nowadays make the twist endings into an art form, and really it’s something that is as cliché in horror as a cat jumping up to scare you from the shadows. At the time though, this was groundbreaking and it all came about after the producers wanted a different and less “Macabre” ending to the movie.
I won’t spoil it, and would rather you all check it out for yourselves. Or I guess you could just google it! Let it be known that’s cheating! I will say that because of the different way films are edited during the silent era it can be difficult to follow exactly what’s going on. It doesn’t help that the version of this film I have isn’t the best one out there. (There is actually a spelling error on one of the title cards!)
This film is a must see for anyone who has an interest in silent horror or film history. It stands as one of the earliest surviving horror films and one that has set up many modern film techniques and storytelling.
If you have an interest in watching this film, it’s available on Netflix or even youtube, it’s a public domain film so it’s not stealing!