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CLASSICS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

February 10, 2016



written by: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
produced by: Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer
directed by: Robett Wiene
rated: unrated
runtime: 71 min.
release date: February 26, 1920 (Germany) and April 3, 1921 (Capitol Theatre, New York City)


Sometimes when I watch an old film, I wish I could’ve been alive to experience it during its initial theatrical run. To see a film with a live audience in a giant movie house with a crowd back in 1920 to take in German director Robert Wiene’s surreal “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” would’ve been a mind-blowing, surreal and possibly horrifying experience. I would imagine this iconic black-and-white silent film would’ve been the very first venture for an audience back then into what we now call horror. Even if a viewer is discovering this landmark in German Expressionist filmmaking now for the first time today, there is much to take in.

Although it’s easy to think of the movies it has influenced over the years, it’s hard not to think about where it drew inspiration from. “The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari” still resonates today thanks to its multiple themes and metaphors, but primarily due to the look and tone of the film. There are characters and moments in the film that standout, but it’s the overall atmosphere which permeate lasting images in one’s mind. It’s the mind where “Dr. Caligari” definitely preys and thrives.

Its story is framed in the present day of the time, but the majority of the film is spent with the main character, Francis (Frederich Feher), who recounts a tale from his past about his initial encounter with the enigmatic Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), whom he meant with his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) and fiance, Jane (Lil Dagover). Even in this opening scene, where we find Francis sitting on a bench next to his listener, in what we assume to be a garden or a park, there is a distinct dreamlike quality present. There are stark visual contrasts in this sequence, yet there’s also an eerie specter of greys amid the inky blacks and ghostly whites. It feels like a very old and worn photograph come to like – part of that could be the physical age of the film itself – but it’s easy to conclude that there is an undeniable decision to provide a design to the film that will appropriately convey an unsettling environment for the tale Francis is about to tell.




The tale told is a story within a story – or Rahmenerzählung, as it is called in German –  where we begin to see how the deliberate and ambitious art direction crafted by artistic designer Hermann Warm and expressionist artists Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, affect both the tone of the film and the viewer’s comprehension. There is a clean break from realism in this flashback as Francis tells of spirits that have driven him “away from family and home” as the look of the film veers into a more fantastic and abstract style.

Wiene frames most of these scenes with his characters off-center, where either huddled characters or curved and sharp structures (boldly symbolic of German Expressionism) point toward a prominent figure such as Dr. Caligari himself, who comes across as something of a huckster in a traveling medicine show. As Francis tells it, the titular character is a mysterious figure and his appearance – crouched in a long black coat with wisps of white hair flowing from his top hat with a piercing spectacled glare – plays on that significantly, in an unforgettable manner.

When Dr. Caligari unveils his attraction – a slender young man named Cesare (Conrad Veidt, known for his role in “Casablanca”) who rises from a coffin – to a baiting crowd at the town fair, the story takes a turn for the bizarre. He’s touted as a somnambulist (aka, a sleepwalker) and looks like an amalgam of Dieter from Sprockets (the Mike Myers character from SNL) and Johhny Depp from “Edward Scissorhands”. From his body language and his stark features (accented by heavy make-u appears to be in a trance state, that brings to mind the work of German Expressionist painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Carl Barth, Max Schwimmer and Fritz Winter. Once Cesare – who is something of a pet or puppet to Caligari –  is introduced, it becomes a bit more obvious which filmmakers “Dr. Caligari” has influenced – Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton come to mind.

Each frame begins to look like it could hang in a gallery of German Expressionism charcoal drawings and much of the actors, with their wide-eyed glances and pursed lips only accentuate the uncertainty and creepiness of the unfolding plot. The storyline does involve the small German town’s suspected murderer (a suspected is arrested but we gather he’s a red herring), but what becomes clear as “Dr. Caligari” goes into its third act is that Francis is not a very reliable storyteller and things are not as they seem. Yes, there is a literal “Cabinet” involved and it does belong to Dr. Caligari – but again, the contents of the titular cupboard may or may not be vital to the film’s storyline.




What is more vital to the film than its storyline is its atmosphere. Although it’s considered a horror film, it feels more like a psychological thriller or…maybe (gasp) it transcends genre confines. The film is certainly more surreal and visually artistic than F.W. Murnau’s  “Nosferatu” and not as unsettling as Paul Leni’s “The Man Who Laughed” (which also starred Conrad Veidt), both fellow German Expressionist filmmakers. It’s the distinctive atmosphere of “Dr. Caligari” that stands the test of time and still feels fresh and intriguing. I would even go so far as to say the film’s presence can be felt in many of the Gothic films of Guillermo del Toro, especially “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” which have a similar visual aesthetic as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.

One can easily see the impact the look and tone of the film has had on both live-action and animated films, but the story is just as influential as well. Without giving away too much about the reveal at the end of “Dr. Caligari”, I will say that the story’s impact can be seen in a fairly recent novel like 2003’s Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, which was adapted into another atmospheric movie of the same name by Martin Scorsese in 2008. Obviously “Dr. Caligari”‘s screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer – and really, just about any dual-personality or suspense thriller set in a mental hospital.




I can also see the visual impact this film has had in the sequential art world as well. It can be seen in the use of shadows and lights (which is strong in “Dr. Caligari” and many other German Expressionistic art) in artwork from the likes of Mike Mignola, Frank Miller and Paul Pope, for example, where stark contrasts often convey a mysterious mood and/or illicit an emotional response. So, the impact of Wiene’s “Dr. Caligari” even transcends artistic mediums.

As mentioned earlier, it would’ve been great to experience this undeniably ground-breaking film upon its initial release, but I’m envious of anyone who discovers this for the first regardless of the year. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a great gateway film for those new to silent films and is a must-see for film enthusiasts.



RATING: ****




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