Jan 13, 2007

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): A

My adoration for silent films was born during my pre-adolescent years, as my fascination with monster movies quickly expanded back to the early silent classics. Thank goodness for the once-great AMC channel (which has since devolved into anything but), which regularly showcased these films in the wee hours of weekday mornings; at that age, I could be up at four a.m. even without coffee, ready to soak up the silent feature of the day. Among my first experiences were the films of Buster Keaton (rarely have I laughed so hard as when I first watched The General), The Crowd (the first film I cried over), and the expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At the time, I doubt I could have given an adequate explanation of what all transpired in the film; I was too hypnotized to take notice. What mattered was the eerie, dreamlike nature of the images.

The influence of Robert Wiene’s Caligari is so great that it threatens to obscure the work itself. Debatably the first true horror film (others come to mind, such as Thomas Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein short), the film is, among other things, a foundation for German expressionism, as well as one of the first sources for many of the conventions and styles eventually adopted into film noir. Architectural structures are skewed in ways that defy convention and physics, characterized by sharp angles and distorted frames, all shrouded by the shadows of a barely evaded darkness. One needn’t look far in the culture to see its manifestations, from the works of Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all come readily to mind) to more unexpected places (such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music video, see below, for their single “Otherside”). As other critics have noted, however, Caligari has unfortunately fallen from its once lofty heights as a cinematic classic. Chalk this up to trends in the community, for Caligari is as important and effective as ever.

The story, as told by Francis (Friedrich Feher), goes as follows: a traveling carnival brings to his hometown the menacing Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose act involves the awakening of somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Purportedly able to predict the future, Francis’ friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) asks Cesare as to how long he will live. The verdict: “You die at dawn.” This chilling revelation is quickly thrown aside as but part of the act, until the following morning, when the dark prophecy is fulfilled by a shadowy, unseen figure. Francis and the town folk quickly look to Caligari in their inquiries.

The key to approaching Caligari is to understand that its distorted sets and spatial arrangements, aside from being the creations of an equally twisted mind (in what might be the first “plot twist” in the medium), are a means of the film wearing its gothic undertones prominently on its sleeves. This works both as a means of expressive style as well as a reflection of the main characters fractured psyche, as the various players are all visually representative of their inner nature. Dr. Caligari looks like some kind of toad, perpetually bent over his cane, his hobbled walk not unlike a disgruntled sand crab (a look greatly borrowed from for Danny DeVito’s brilliant portrayal of the Penguin in Burton’s aforementioned Batman Returns), while Cesare’s acrobatic and fluid motions are the stuff of a nightmarish ballet (his appearance bearing no small resemblance to Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands).

When the ultimate revelation comes in the film’s final minutes – Francis, who has thus far been telling the story via flashback, turns out to be one of many patients in an insane asylum – the many pieces of the quixotic puzzle quickly fall into their perfectly logical places. Unlike many later films that adopted an almost identical narrative structure in regards to showcasing a mental illness (I’m talking to you, A Beautiful Mind), Caligari is both enthralling and true to its structure (not to mention conscientious of its characters’ plights, positing the same symptoms on an unknowing audience rather than simply plugging them for highbrow entertainment factor). The factors influencing Francis’ mental delusions are both clear and logical, providing a tangible connection between a splintered reality and the surreal world in his mind. By taking the viewer through the maze of this mind before resurfacing in a familiar setting, the power of its bizarre elements becomes even more stimulating.

1 comment:

  1. terrific review! I feel very similar with the film and watching it i knew straight away he Burton's style has bee inspired in some way from this film.