Friday, April 23, 2010

Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) (1920)

Here's a movie I've been meaning to see for years, and its availability on netflix instant only encouraged me to put it off with a "oh, I can see it anytime" mentality. Finally a quiet, humdrum Sunday shift at work provoked the extreme appeal of a short, twisted example of German Expressionist cinema. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is constructed as a frame story told by Francis (Friedrich Feher), a regular guy who's just hanging out in a garden talking to a wide-eyed older man.

He recounts the story of the performer Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his mysterious "somnambulist" Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Their arrival coincides with a string of murders that plague the town, and the victims include Francis's best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), aka "German Crispin Glover". Francis becomes obsessed with exposing Caligari's secrets, especially after his hella creepy somnambulist tries to abduct his fiancee Jane (Lil Dagover), but isn't ready to face the truth when he exposes the doctor's intentions.

While dubbed a horror film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari isn't particularly scary; rather it works as a vaguely paranormal mystery with a cool twist but sub-par writing. This is a silent film (the first I've reviewed on this blog actually- took me long enough, I know), which often leads to some over-acting and under-developed characters. Or maybe Debbie Reynolds's impassioned monologue about acting in Singin' in the Rain just pollutes my opinion. The flatness and general lameness of the protagonists made me less interested in the story itself, and the pacing, which dragged out certain parts while unnecessarily speeding up others, also took me out of the narrative. It's a cool story, just not told exceptionally well.

Then again, who the hell cares what's going on with these one-dimensional characters when you have such absolutely intoxicating visuals? I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most stunning and inventive movies I've ever seen. The black and white medium is cast aside in favor of colorful filters, often highlighting the garish make-up of every character. I loved the mix of blue, red, and yellow hues for different scenes, each color used to affect the overall mood.

The sets are twisted and dreamlike, incorporating off-kilter shapes and forced perspective for highly dramatic shots. They are decorated in great detail with shadows and abstract designs, evoking an imaginative and painterly atmosphere reminiscent of a Surrealist landscape. There is inspired use of light and dark, with a lot of dynamic close-ups to increase tension. This is really just a movie I want to walk around in, it is so eye-catching and innovative. Even the title cards are done in a bright green color scheme with a wacky typeface.

Sometimes the storytelling is a little off, but regardless The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is definitely a unique and memorable experience. Its beauty is both haunting and inviting, and I can clearly see its influence on future directors' aesthetics. I was a little disappointed that the title cards were in English and I couldn't practice my German, but I guess that's normal for a foreign silent film? It's been a while since I've seen Nosferatu or Metropolis and I can't remember if it was done with subtitles or total replacement of the text. It's very short and completely worth seeing at least once, and it's available for free on the internet (don't watch the youtube one- it's completely black and white). Great job, German Expressionists. You guys are the best.



  1. aww, I love this movie! Naturally the visuals struck me the most and I ended up doodling little Cesares all over my notes for a week after seeing it. I thought the story was fairly compelling in its simplicity though. Something about the drives of insanity got to me, I'm not sure, and the fact that it's got a bit of a fable-like quality to it, you need stock characters to fill that space. But that's what I got from it.

  2. Cabinet is actually in my top ten favorite films and is definitely my favorite silent film (followed closely by Metropolis and Nosferatu). As you said, the visuals are really the highlight here with a delicious eerie dreamlike world fully realized. It's like walking poetry for me, really. I happen to really enjoy the story as well, itself both "haunting and inviting" as you noted the visuals to be. I agree with nerdvampire that the fable-like quality really pulls you in and mixes very well with the visuals.



  3. All: Thanks for the comments! It's not that I didn't like the story, I just found it less intriguing than the visuals, which to me is a slight failing of the film as a whole. I think if the story had been structured a little differently or developed a bit more I would have loved it and the visuals equally, enhancing my overall enjoyment of the movie. But I still thought it was a really interesting tale!

  4. Cabinet is probably one of my favorite 20th century movies. It's the visuals that got me too--not just the sets, I really love the look of silent films in general--the story just kinda took a backseat. Except the end.

  5. Warning: This comment contains a spoiler...

    ...the plot is definitely a hackneyed potboiler, but that's because it's made up in the head of the protagonist, who's no writer. He solves the crime and saves the day with relative ease because it's his own fantasy.

    Btw, I think I've seen the tinted print you're referring to here. Were the title cards themselves 'Expressionist looking'? That version is probably the best-looking of the surviving prints.

    I really like what you wrote, but if you're interested in a different take, have a look at mine. Silent movies are pretty much all I review:

  6. This is one of my favorite films. I recently composed a new soundtrack for the film on my blog.
    Thanks for the great post.
    Danny Hahn