Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Fig.1 Original Movie Poster

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was made in 1920 and is noted as being 'the first true horror film'. Directed by Robert Wiene, this German black and white silent movie is said to be one of the most influential movies of all time.

Fig.2 Dr Caligari, Cesare and Jane

We are introduced to the film with the scene of a young man, Francis, retelling his story to a friend. The story involves a strange man, Dr Caligari, who comes to the town fair with a somnambulist, Cesare. He claims Cesare can predict the future and welcomes onlookers to challenge him. At the same time several mysterious murders occur in the town. Curious of Dr Caligari, Francis and his friend Alan visit the attraction and Alan challenges Cesare with the question "How long will I live?". Cesare answers that he will die at dawn, which is indeed what happens. Ever suspicious of Dr Caligari, Francis investigates further until Dr Caligari realises and sends Cesare to murder Francis' lady interest, Jane. Cesare cannot carry out the killing and instead kidnaps Jane, carrying her to the rooftops above the town of Holstenwall. Here we have one of the most iconic movie images of all time (Fig.3). Cesare collapses and dies from exhaustion and Jane is saved. At the same time, Francis visits the town asylum to see if there has ever been an inmate by the name of Caligari and to his horror discovers that Dr Caligari is in fact the director of the institution. It is revealed that Dr Caligari, obsessed with a monk named 'Caligari', wished to copy his idol and carry out 'proxy killings' using the somnambulist as his puppet. Francis and the asylum doctors capture and restrain the maniacal Dr Caligari, who becomes distraught at the news that Cesare is dead. At the end of the film, however, the twist in the tale is revealed when we discover that Francis is not retelling a true story, but is telling a story in his mind. He is the patient in the asylum and Dr Caligari is his doctor. 

Fig.3 Cesare carries Jane to the rooftops

What strikes us first visually in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is the striking and stylized abstract sets. Shadows were painted onto the floors, backdrops and flats to create mystery and quirkiness to the movie. Not everything 'makes sense', such as the wonky windows and twisted staircases. (Fig.4 & 5) The music is another clue to what is happening in the movie, albeit more subtle than the backdrops. When watching the scenes of Francis' fantasy, we are presented with the unusual, abstract sets and grating, repetetive music. This is because the director wants the audience to experience what is happening in Francis, the mad-man's head. At the very end of the film, note that the sets are straight and 'as would be expected' as the audience are no longer inside Francis' story and inside his head. The music here is more pleasant and free-flowing. These subtle sensory messages are used throughout films today and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is known by many as the first to have the 'twist ending'. Although a black and white film because of the year it was made, the saturation completely adds to the feel of the movie and this effect would be lost, should the film have any real colour to it. The music and timing of the movie add to the suspense and the jerky, exaggerated movements of the actors give a real sense of drama and uncertainty. We can see how this film inspired such films as 'Frankenstein' and more recently 'Edward Scissorhands'. 

Fig.4 Original Concept Art

 Fig.5 Screenshot showing quirky and unusual set


Fig.1 Original Movie Poster

No comments:

Post a Comment