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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
1920 - NR - 72 Mins.
Director: Robert Wiene
Written By: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover
Review by: David Rolston

A murderer is on the loose.
Despite the vast odds against it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has managed to remain in the public consciousness since its release in 1920, and is generally considered to be amongst the handful of greatest silent films ever produced. Like many of the other silents thought to occupy the same category, few people have ever actually seen it. Most of us are burdened with a preconceived notion of silent films as jerky undercranked keystone cops affairs, given that until recently our only exposure to silent films came from television: prints telecined with twenty four frames-per-second projectors when the originals were filmed at eighteen. To compound the issue, the idea of film preservation is a fairly modern notion, and many silents have withered away to dust. Preservationists estimate that only 10-20 percent of the films made in the silent era exist in any form today. As public interest and critical regard for Caligari diminished, one inevitably had to question whether a silent film could possibly offer any relevance to an audience some 80 years after it was released, and the likelihood of actually seeing the film in something approximating its original form was non existent.

Fortunately, technology and the art of film preservation along with the invention of the laserdisc and now the DvD has established that there is still interest and a market for films like Caligari. Where there's a market, there is life, and the opportunity for even the average person to obtain versions of many seminal silent films, some like Nosferatu that were thought to have been lost forever. In testament to Caligari's enduring power, there are two restored versions of the film available on DvD, each of which offers modern audiences the opportunity to see the film in a form respectful of it's stature. Prior to 1996 when the Laserdisc "Image" version from noted silent film preservationist David Shepard was released, if you were able to see Caligari in any form, you were seeing at best a mangled truncated shambles, sans the original tinting scheme, missing scenes and accurately translated scene cards. Kino has recently released a second restoration from a different source print, and goes even farther than the Image release in recreating the scrolling scene cards, which were part of the film's initial theatrical release. Clearly, people are still passionate enough about Caligari to have invested considerable time, effort and money to return it to the marketplace.

One of the reasons for its longevity is that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is both a film and a work of art. When historians describe it today, it's typically categorized as the film that launched what is now known as the era of German Expressionist Cinema, perfected by practitioners F.W. Murnau with Nosferatu, and Fritz Lang with Metropolis. Caligari was designed from the start to attract as much attention to itself as possible, as the German film industry was desperate to export its products under the pressure of the collapsing German economy. There was simply no way for the Germans to compete with the technology and budgets available to Hollywood directors like D.W. Griffith, and so they began to look for other ways to differentiate and promote their work. Director Robert Wiene in what turned out to be an uncannily prescient moment of inspiration, hired three artists associated with an Avante Garde periodical to design a distinctive look to match the sensational melodramatic script for a thriller, with a plot that thinly masked with allegory a bitter criticism of the right wing German institutions and aristocratic system that had plunged Germany into the misery and crushing defeat of the first world war.

Modern audiences frequently describe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is being theatrical, due to its distinctive art and set design, wardrobe, and stylized makeup. All these aspects were heavily influenced by the artistic revolution channeled into the film by its designers and writers. Many of the German expressionists had lived through the horrors of World War I trenches, and were eager to establish an aesthetic that was both vital and new, and more importantly as far removed from the status quo as possible. German expressionism grew from this philosophy into a highly stylized modernist movement influenced heavily by the art of Munch, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Expressionism sought to focus on the emotions of the artist rather than a pursuit of realism. What was important to the Expressionists was not capturing how something looked, but rather how a person, place or thing made one feel, even if those feelings were painful or even ugly. And in 1919, Germans were not feeling all that great. A shaky Weimar republic had emerged from the ashes of the defeated German monarchy and clung tenuously to public legitimacy while socialist groups continued to rail against the entrenched aristocracy, and militias battled each other for the very soul of Germany unimpeded by an independent military still beholden to the aristocracy. The German citizenry suffered mightily from the effects of rampant inflation and record unemployment, compounded by the unprecedented societal pressures created by the return of wounded, shell shocked veterans to a country who's institutions were unprepared to treat them. Factor in the rapid industrialization and urbanization taking place in cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, and it should come as no surprise to us that the world of Caligari is a world of uncertainty, chaos, murder, and nightmare; of people with a shaky grasp on their sanity, finding themselves preyed upon and dominated by the unscrupulous and morally bankrupt. All of these elements were both consciously and subliminally imbued into the fabric of Caligari.

The film opens as two men sit conversing on a park bench. A dark haired woman clad entirely in white walks by in a trancelike state. Francis, the younger of the two men exclaims: "That's my Fiancé" and launches into a story which he promises the older man is "Stranger" than anything he has ever experienced.

And so begins a recounting of strange events surrounding the Hostenwall Fair, where Francis and his friend Alan encountered an odd exhibit by the titular Dr.Caligari: that of a twenty three year old man in a perpetual state of sleep: none other than Cesare the Somnambulist! The sinister Doctor offers anyone willing to pay his fee an opportunity to talk with Cesare, who according to Caligari can be roused briefly from his perpetual slumber in a coffin, with the supernatural ability to predict the future. When Alan foolishly steps forward to ask the fateful question "How long will I live?" the ghoulish Cesare replies "Until dawn tomorrow." Clearly it is best not to ask questions like this, for sure enough, Alan is found dead the following morning, the second victim in a series of unexplained murders. Francis vows to find his friend's killer, and begins to gather clues and interview suspects.

The film was an enormous critical and financial success, and forever changed the public perception of movies as nothing more than cheap entertainment for the unwashed masses. Caligari established the potential of art direction and design to transcend mere scenery and prop placement. From the earliest design sketches, the expressionist sets influenced every aspect of the film from the choice of camera angles, to the lighting and even the performances of the actors. Although the actors, several of whom went on to have long and successful careers, are all never less than adequate, Conrad Veidt's Cesare is a standard setting tour de force that established the archetypal zombie, a creature neither alive nor dead, clad entirely in black, with blank emotionless eyes swimming in a pallid face. Only at night does Cesare come alive prowling the streets of the town unseen as he contorts his angular form until he blends into the walls and hugs the shadows.

Caligari and the other expressionist films that followed in its footsteps firmly established the motifs embraced by the Universal horror films of the 1930's and by Film Noir. Caligari is widely considered to have invented much of the visual vocabulary which became commonplace in psychological thrillers and horror films, and it continues to be recognized for its use of a frame story, and for introducing a plot reversal device that has been copied and riffed on in countless ways ever since.

With that said, the conventional narrative and antiquated acting styles, and primitive editing techniques are beyond reconciliation for a modern audience Caligari today, simply isn't capable of inducing the suspense, dread and shock it inspired in the audiences of its time. For one reason, watching the film today inevitably reminds one of all the seminal films it inspired: the works of Hitchcock, Welles and Polanski to name but a few. It has become commonplace to describe dreamy intensely emotional films as being Surreal', when a more accurate description should be 'expressionistic'. As time goes on, we have lost hold of the thread that should lead us back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Just as the artists who inspired expressionism continue to speak to modern audiences, the choices made by the Caligari production team established conclusively that film was a vital collaborative art form. We can never understand just how alien and fully realized a vision the film must have seemed to the audiences of its time, but we can still ponder and debate it's intellectual construction, its relation to the political ideology and artistic revolution which inspired it, and marvel at the length of the shadow it has cast over the countless filmmakers who follow in its footsteps to this very day.
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

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