Das Cabinet des Caligari – “An expressionist masterpiece…”

The history of cinema harks back to few films that are as important and iconic as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. An expressionist masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is, for a limited time, back in the cinema.
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Re-mastered and screened from August 29th, the cinematic experience is a rare treat as the hand-painted backdrops and subtle face make-up can be seen up-close and appreciated in the way it was intended (perhaps even better). As filmmaking was finding its feet, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari makes use of the theatrical manner of stage and sets, but toys with the narrative device of flashback to tell its story. Like an old man telling us a tale, the mysterious narrator with his wide eyes, has his own backstory – and a memorable finale reveals all.

Almost a legendary fable of cinema already, Das Cabinet des Caligari begins as two met sit on a bench. A young man, Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells a story to an old man (Hans Lanser-Rudolff) and we are transported to see the events unfold. A small village is introduced. Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) are to go out on the town, and visit the fair, but not before they banter about their love of the local girl Jane (Lil Dagover). Unknown to the boys, amongst the glowing lights of the fair, Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is due to perform with his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt, who would go on to play the trumped up Nazi in Casablanca). As the two enter the tent, it is revealed that Cesare knows the past, present and future. Cesare, expressionless with piercing-eyes, tells Alan that he will die before the morning and as predicted, Alan is murdered in the night – by Cesare. Francis immediately seeks support and holds his suspicions towards Caligari himself. Even magic appears to be at play when Cesare kidnaps Jane, while Francis spies on both Caligari and the sleeping Cesare – how can he appear in two places at once? Though Caligari is the villain of the film, it seems that all is not what it seems for Francis either.

Released in 1920, and directed by Robert Wiene, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari has become the subject of many essays, books and articles of cinema. At 77-minutes long, this is a short film that, broken into six-parts, is easy to watch and a pleasure to re-watch now it has been fully restored. Silent cinema has never looked so good, and the colour-tints and painted-sets, with their fake-shadows and sharp lines, only serve to establish the film as a work of art.

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So much has been inspired by the film, such as Murnau’s Nosferatu two years later, but it has continued to this day. Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Batman Returnsis clearly the villainous Dr. Caligari himself; glasses, top hat and cane included. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, an underrated homage to psychological thrillers of the era, pays a huge debt to the plot and doctor-patient dynamic seen in Caligari. The jagged edges, and diagonal lines, would go on to influence Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which would in turn influence Spike Lee. In fact, the bizarre setting is perhaps the most memorable element. But it is worth remembering how, within a few decades of the invention of cinema, a film like this was made. Haunting and innovative, Das Cabinet des Caligari is the horror film every cinema goer needs to watch. And if you’ve seen it before? Watch it again.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth in September 2014

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