(Germany); 1919; Not Rated; 72 Minutes
Werner Krauß: Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt: Cesare
Friedrich Feher: Francis
Lil Dagover: Jane
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski: Alan
Produced by Erich Pommer; Directed by Robert
Wiene; Screenwritten by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
by DAVID KEYES
strong concern for any modern filmmaker is that their movies
might not always look genuine. Over time, special effects
and computer technology have grown so incredibly limitless
that most directors have a hard time capturing the realism
in them. In the beginning, camera tricks and lush sets prompted
the incorporation of various visual designs in moviemaking,
limited only by the minds of their respected creators. Today,
all one has to do is press the button on a computer system,
and--bingo!--that idea can be taken to new heights. But
the challenge of capturing authenticity in them remains.
Any type of filmmaker can tell you that, without feeling
lifelike, movie environments can grow stale and shallow,
sometimes discharging the tension one should be experiencing
in the plot.
recently, when visionary ideas are stretched by a stupendous
budget, have filmmakers abandoned their innovation and have
instead chosen to fill the screen with loud and obnoxious
clichés, like gooey creatures, fierce explosions, and assorted
objects hurtling towards Earth with mass devastation. All
of these things were once pleasing sights in the cinema,
but alas have become too familiar, and lack energy because
there is no depth within them or the stories that surround
them. But still, there are some, like the visionary master
Alex Proyas, who pay attention to every detail, and use
the visual eye-candy as something to develop the story,
rather than to amaze those who enjoy loud, foul and colorless
action sequences developed by computer generated imagery.
The true visual wizards of the cinema never overload the
screen with visual sights, and instead treat them as part
of the narrative, stressing them only as needed.
such a problem affects today's filmmakers, imagine the difficulty
for a silent director. Here was a time when the term "special
effects" was unheard of: everything, practically, had to
be built from the ground up, so that people could wander
through the environments validly, and we could believe that
they really exist. The process was time and money consuming,
but most was worth it, for, at a time when big blockbusters
absorb the moviegoeing attention, silent films remain positively
refreshing in terms of genuine design. Perhaps no film greater
clarifies that then the best of the time period, Robert
Wiene's masterpiece "The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari."
movie is regarded as the redefining point for German filmmaking;
a creation which helped revolutionize future inspirations,
and garnered the German market considerable overseas popularity.
In 1919, at the time the film was in production, Germany
had been dwarfed in the movie business by the ever-growing
American market, and in order for them to gather considerable
worldwide attention, their movies had to be different in
style and substance.
Germanic expressionism was born. It is defined as the "art"
movie, concentrating on imagery more than dialogue in order
for the sights to absorb the viewer and guide them through
the plot. American movies were by far more popular, but
only because they told stories familiar in history. Those
that came out of Germany are generally more examined today,
not just because the images are the only things that tell
the story, but also because they bounce between the line
separating reality from the supernatural. Somehow, behind
all the evocative sights, there lies a message that everyone
can relate to. In "Metropolis," beneath all those skyscrapers
and vast vistas was an undertone of prejudice and ignorance,
ended by he who could act as "the mediator."
Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" tells a story of evil at heart,
steadily growing around a village that is etched with penetrating
design and insane-looking structures. The sight of two people
walking through town is more like seeing them lose their
way in the mind of a madman. Yet it is easy to understand
why the director chooses to imagine the town in this matter:
the sharp, narrow townhouses underscore the evil manifestations
that take place within the boundaries of the very city.
Murder, trickery, deception, justice, revenge, obsession--some
of these elements are shown with shocking and brutal detail
(for that day), and have earned a "PG" in today's rating
system in the United Kingdom. Next to "Witchcraft Of The
Ages," it is viewed as one of the more violent films of
the silent era. Some people might have considerable difficulty
sitting through it.
story is a revolution of wickedness: a wheel of bizarre
occurrences and unsettling characters that engulf the peaceful
serenity of a small, oddly designed town. We at first meet
Francis (Friedrich Feher), sitting on a bench, watching
with concern as his fiancee walks passed him like a zombie.
He tells the man sitting next to him of a maniacal doctor
who disrupted their lives years ago, when he and his best
friend were wooing Jane (Lil Pagover), and the county fair
had just arrived in town.
an immediate decision, Francis and Alan (Hans Heinrich von
Twardowski) attend it, and find themselves entering the
tent of Cesare, the "Somnambulist," who is described as
a "man who knows the past and sees into the future." Dr.
Caligari's menacing but encouraging words attract several
into the exhibit, where he reveals Cesare, his "pet," of
sorts, to the audience. "Ask him any question you like,"
Caligari demands. Alan, unknowingly, steps up to the dark
figure and asks "How long do I have to live?" Cesare's eyes
become narrow and his lips puckered, as if he were sucking
a lemon. "...Until dawn tomorrow." A first reaction for
Alan is to panic, but it was his own fault, after all: what
kind of man asks a creepy dude like this how long he has
the words prove true. Following the murder of the town clerk,
Alan is brutally killed with, as an investigator puts it,
"a sharp instrument." We know it's a knife, however, because
the actual crime is displayed on screen through the shadows
of the murderer and the victim. Afterwards, when the body
is discovered, the director never actually shows the corpse,
which is a necessary action in heightening the plot's ever-growing
tension. When the murders continue, the town becomes paralyzed
point of the plot is not to unfold every detail in straightforward
form. Most of it is built upon the foundation of several
other subplots, which sidetracks immediate attention on
the mysterious crimes, and keeps you guessing. There is
one subplot, for instance, where a man is captured trying
to impersonate the mysterious murder. At least that is what
he says. But is he lying? Is he the real reason there is
so much death? Or was he trying to kill someone at the hope
of pinpointing it one he who was killing everyone else?
The questions allow us to ponder different and possible
are constantly making accusations at who the real murderer
is, and just when we think we have it solved, there is a
mysterious twist in the situation that, although eventually
is abandoned, forces us to examine every detail a little
more closely. One might call the premise a "murder mystery,"
but I beg to differ. The story is Caligari's, who is so
filled with wickedness that his visage comes off as the
first "mad scientist" of his time. He was probably even
inspiration for the Rotwang character in the silent classic
way the Germans incorporated recognizable themes into their
"art" movies was by far the most revolutionary development
of any cinematic era. It helped put foreign cinema on the
map, and in the process inspired several more popular expressionistic
films, like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu,"
and even two other Robert Wiene classics, "Crime And Punishment"
and "The Hands Of Orlac." But the best has always remained
"The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari," partially because it overflows
with several dazzling details, but mostly because it is
a reminder, and an example, of how today's filmmakers have
forgotten about the overwhelming influence seductive imagery
can have on an involving story. It is a movie like this
that represents my strong passion for the cinema.
1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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