Review of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

15 Nov

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) is a German silent horror/fantasy film, which played a big part in the German Expressionist movement.

Directed by Robert Wiene (The Hands Of Orlac (1924), Genuine (1920)).

Written by Hans Janowitz (Der Januskopf (1920), Marizza, Gennant Die Schmuggler Madonna (1922)) and Carl Mayer (The Haunted Castle (1921), The Last Laugh (1924)), who were inspired by Janowitz’s experience, when after leaving a fair he noticed a stranger mysteriously disappearing in the shadows and then hearing about a murdered young woman the next day.

Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover, Friedrich Feher and others.

It is considered a classic and one of the greatest horror films of the silent era, also often noted for possibly introducing twist endings to cinema.

The visual style of the film is stunningly fascinating. It achieves the kind of eerie feeling, that was evoked in me when watching Max Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu. The sets are beautiful paintings of oddly shaped objects, static shadows and distorted perspectives, which add an uneasy and otherworldly feel to it. The frequent fade transitions, unrealistic angularity and lingering iris shots often make you feel like you’re watching a dream-world through a peep-hole. And as it usually is with dreams, you seem close enough to interfere, but you’re just not.

Sadly, I didn’t see the best available copy of the film. I found it hard to tell apart the present time and flashback scenes, which would have been apparent in the tinted version of the film, but was not in the purely Black&White version I saw.

As it often was with silent films, it has a pretty short running time, barely exceeding an hour, so it doesn’t get really draggy and I am grateful when silent films don’t dare my ADD to kick in.

I even learned a new word, maybe I’m an idiot, but “somnambulist” was new to me (still waiting to use it in a sentence). So this is also an educational movie.

The twist ending is cool from one perspective, more like a historical landmark, but from a modern perspective it is a totally unsatisfying cop-out, which was forced by the film’s producers. Although M. Night Shyamalan would love it anyway.

For the 1920’s audiences, unfamiliar by the possibilities of cinema, seeing something this grotesque must have been an unsettling experience.

It does suffer from the kind of overacting, that was quite common in early silent films, although one might argue that it is in a way forgivable in this case, because the film isn’t supposed to be realistic anyway. But Conrad Veidt does a good job as the creepy Cesar, mostly because he is refreshingly emotionless, yet seems to be screaming without making a sound.

It is a special movie for me, because it is the last 1920 movie I’ve seen and it is going to stay that way. That’s right, 90 years is where I draw the line, so there’s only a few weeks left to watch all the 1921 movies I want to see.

It’s a good movie, maybe not aged so well as a horror movie, but still is an amazing view in the weirdest visuals early cinema has to offer. I certainly do recommend it. Maybe the best way for a modern viewer to see it is by turning off the original soundtrack and put on some music of your own choice, preferably something that would go along with the film’s dreamlike mood.

"What do you mean 'I look like an emo'?"

One Response to “Review of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)”

  1. Florentino Jacklin December 1, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    no wonder the world is like this

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