07 August 2008

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

d. Robert Wiene / Germany / 71 mins.
Alt: "Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari."

A landmark film and possibly the first true "cult" movie in every sense of that phrase, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a bizarre experience, one of the few films whose mere title is capable of painting a detailed portrait in the mind of the viewer. Say the film's title and suddenly images of jagged, wild geometric lines flood the mind, images of an off-kilter world void of right angles, images bathed in moody shadows and burning light. To say something is like Caligari is to make a concrete comparison. Not many films have reached that level in our vernacular.

Robert Wiene's 1920 horror film about a traveling showman named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his fate-predicting sleepwalker in a cabinet (Conrad Veidt) had a tremendous effect on cinema, one of the first films to conceptualize the visual style known as German expressionism. Although expressionism can be traced back unofficially to artwork from the 1500s, the purest incarnation had been brewing in other forms of art as late as the end of the nineteenth century (think Munch's painting "The Scream"). Its use in films exploded after Caligari.

Wiene himself would not go on to do more illustrious things, ironically enough, and the skewed appearances of the sets in the film were hardly ever attempted again. But perhaps his legacy is best considered in the names of the men who followed his film. The first wave of its influence was rooted in directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose later productions like Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927) would be towering achievements in expressionism. A young Alfred Hitchcock, working in Britain, would become fascinated by the darkness of expressionism and variations of it would infuse his work for years. Universal Pictures saw its potential for Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931). The play of shadows, as an actual lighting source and as moral clouds, would be the crowning element of film noir. The directors didn't need to imitate the actual sets of Caligari to understand the more important cinematic concept: that the exterior world a character inhabits can be best utilized as a representation of his or her interior problems.

As a work of entertainment, the film isn't without its flaws. At times it's a little too slow and the twist ending – tacked on over the objections of screenwriters Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer to make the film feel less saturnine – feels a little strained. Producer Erich Pommer (who had his hand in nearly every prominent expressionist film in Germany from Caligari to Metropolis) can be credited for helping shape the film's visual style, which is still Caligari's most alluring trait. Many of the films it influenced were actually quite better, but the demented characters and their equally demented world are well worth the look.


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