The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari
Rating -

  Horror/Drama (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

Review Uploaded

Written by DAVID KEYES

A 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.

Only 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.

If 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."

The 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.

Hence 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."

"The 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.

The 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.

As 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 to live?

Nonetheless, 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 with fear.

The 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 perspectives.

We 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 "Metropolis."

The 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, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
All published materials contained herein are owned by their respective authors and cannot be reprinted, either in their entirety or in selection, without the expressed written consent of the writers.

© 2007