Lauded as the landmark of German expressionism as well as the very genesis of film noir genre, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been in my to-watch list for ages. Originating from almost a century ago, the film will be restored and screened at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Since i could not attend Berlinale (yet, fingers crossed!) i choose the film as the first of my 2014 BLINDSPOT series.
I must know everything. I must penetrate the heart of his secret! I must become Caligari!
The story is introduced with a frame story, where Mr. Francis (Friedrich Feher) told his story to his companion about the story of him and the woman he love, Jane (Lil Dagover). In the flashback Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) just arrived in the village of Holstenwall. He is a curious fellow, opening a roadside attraction featuring a Somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who’s been asleep since his birth 23 years ago. Soon after their arrival the village is swept by terror of strange series of murders. When Francis own friend, Alan asked Cesare to foretold his death, only to be discovered murdered in the next morning, as predicted, Francis suspicion towards Dr Caligari and his somnambulist arise.
The portion of flashback of the film come very predictable for me and yet the twist towards the end genuinely surprised me. Which only brought to mind another film with similar narrative structure. The twist is startling and made the entire style of the film become even more impressive and made sense. More importantly the film does have that lingering sense of eeriness that remained intact. Become the very first cinematic piece that introduce a plot twist.
The world of Caligari is jagged, tilted, asymmetrical, absurd. The scenery and set not only become a background to this grotesque tale of Caligari but also hold certain importance to its story. The lines in the set is skewed, the walls are slanted, everything have odd angles. The grasses and tree branches are like blades and spears. Even the name card and posters are skewed does not appear rectangular. My initial thoughts of these stylistic choices was that it meant to emphasized the feel of perspective angles using in 2D or to give the feel of nightmarish terror of the story. Borrowing the style of expressionist art (and perhaps dadaism in a certain extend), it became obvious that this become a representation of the distorted perspective of a madman where the reality and their psychological phantasmagoria become more evident.
The movement and physical representation of the actors become an additional emphasis to the film overall style. Adapting their jerky, theatrical movements from expressionist dance style. The make up of each characters with their painted lips and darkened eyes seemed not solely to easily captivate their expression but to elevate the characterization of each character. The film had a direct impact on James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), as well as influenced many later works, including those of Tim Burton, who modeled Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands on Veidt’s character of the mesmerized somnambulist.
Spellbinding and intriguing, 71 minute long Caligari is an incomparable experience. Along with early 20s horror film (such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, etc), it is an paragon of classic horror that become an inspiration to many, many others that follows in its period or much later after that. The film deserved it’s iconic status in the history of cinema and all the praises that goes with it.
DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (1920)
GENRE Horror, Thriller
DIRECTOR Robert Wiene | PRODUCER Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer | WRITER Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer | MUSIC Giuseppe Becce | CINEMATOGRAPHER Willy Hameister | DISTRIBUTOR Decla-Bioscop, Goldwyn Distributing Company | BUDGET DEM 20,000 | COUNTRY Germany | RUNNING TIME 71 minutes | RELEASE February 26, 1920
STARRING Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski
DID YOU KNOW? All the set was constructed with less than $800 budget, they were made out of paper, with the shadows painted on the walls.