The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

26 05 2010

Metropolis (1927) is probably the most well-known silent-era German expressionist film, closely followed by Nosferatu (1922). But pre-dating both yet just as influential is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920): everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Edward Scissorhands (1990) can be in some way traced back to this important work, but so can A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Sixth Sense (1999) as well.

This is one of the first bona fide horror films and the first to employ a twist-ending. More importantly, it was the first film to place a real narrative in a very unreal-looking world. The sets are truly staggering, looking like reality as seen in a fun-house mirror. Nothing exists at right-angles, with walls lurching in on the characters and trees almost seeming to grasp at passers-by (cue Snow White). Even makeup is, at times, heavily stylised, with flat-white faces and dark, ominous eyes marking-out one character in particular (cue Edward Scissorhands). The world as we know it has been twisted, distorted, up-ended in a nightmarish landscape that threatens with its stark, foreboding design.

Living in this insane setting is Francis (Friedrich Feher) who, along with his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), attends a fair and sees the exhibit of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). Caligari’s attraction is somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who predicts that Alan will be dead before the next dawn. When Alan is then murdered, Francis becomes determined to find his killer.

None of this is terribly revolutionary as far as story goes, but juxtaposed against the production design, you have a film where your worst fears are realised. Caligari and Cesare seem the only true denizens of this world, suitably bizarre in their own ways and blending-in nicely with the angular backdrops. Francis, on the other hand, is utterly normal, though he and Cesare have something in common: like the somnambulist who has slept most of his 23 years, Francis seems doomed to exist in a nightmare he is unable to wake from.

It’s exactly this tension between the realistic and stylised elements that drives the film. The editing in particular is restrained and traditional, emphasising continuity over technique; meanwhile, the camera stays relatively fixed in each shot. Partly this is out of necessity—the sets were constructed out of paper, and if a scene were to be shot at the wrong angle, the illusion would be broken. But partly too, this is what made the film a success, grounding it for the spectator who would otherwise find the look of the film wholly disconcerting.

In recent times Caligari‘s mise-en-scène has been aped most obviously in Edward Scissorhands (as already noted). In actual fact, Tim Burton’s entire filmography seems based in no small part on the influence of Caligari in particular and German expressionism in general, right from his first short,Vincent, in 1982.

Anyone interested in film needs to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at least once. It isn’t a chore to watch, however: rather than being a dry example of a bygone era, this is a vital piece of cinema that continues to resonate even today. Will the same be said of Letters to Juliet, 90 years from now?

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One response

11 09 2010
Danny Hahn

I love this movie! I recently composed a new score for it: http://tinyurl.com/39cmk75

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