For this month’s first review for Genre Grandeur – Unreliable Narrator movies here’s a review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by David of BluePrint: Review.
Thanks again to Lisa Leehey of Critical Critics for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Aaron Neuwirth of the Code is Zeek and we will be reviewing our favorite Horror-Comedy Films.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Feb by sending them to email@example.com
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Aaron!
Let’s see what David thought of this movie:
Director: Robert Wiene
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover
Producers: Erich Pommer, Rudolf Meinert (both uncredited)
Running Time: 77 min
BBFC Certificate: U
As with a number of the classic titles I’ve reviewed here over the last couple of years, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if you couldn’t translate it yourself) is one of the major ‘canon’ titles which has been on my ‘to watch’ list for far too long. Once again, Eureka’s wonderful Masters of Cinema Series has come to the rescue though and released an immaculately restored Blu-Ray (and DVD) of the film, complete with an abundance of special features so that I can finally sink my teeth into this dark and twisted classic of silent cinema.
The film opens with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), telling an older gentleman of the horrific events he endured with his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) over the past few months. Francis and his good friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) both fell for Jane on meeting her, but both stated that the other shall be satisfied with the choice she would ultimately make. However, that night they went to the local carnival and entered the tent of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist (a sort of sleep walker) Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The mysterious zombified figure awakened to tell Alan that he would die that night and lo and behold he did. Francis vowed to find the killer, especially seeing as the local police force wasn’t effectively dealing with the situation. Of course the chief suspect was Cesare, but Francis struggled to prove his guilt and various events along the way turned the story in surprising directions, bringing the power and identity of the mysterious Dr. Caligari to the fore. Even when we return to the ‘present day’ there are more twists in store for the audience though and there are still debates as to exactly who played what part in this mystery.
This narrative isn’t always handled brilliantly, rarely making perfect sense and feeling quite muddy at times, but after the whole thing plays out you realise that could well be the idea. Featuring perhaps the first ‘unreliable narrator’, the majority of the film plays out in the mind of the possibly deluded Francis who may or not be being manipulated by the evil (or possibly not evil) Dr. Caligari so a lack of clarity works very effectively in a subtextual sense. The film’s fairly unusual and messy development (inexperienced writers with an experimental idea, the first choice of director – Fritz Lang – being unavailable, and some changes imposed by the producers etc.) may suggest a happy accident though. Whatever the case, the film is certainly more interesting than most from the era due to its structure and twists and these have led to almost a century of discussion among critics and theorists. The film plays havoc with the auteur theory though due to the never fully resolved debate of authorship over the film. The writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, designer Hermann Warm, producer Erich Pommer and director Robert Wiene have all claimed or been given credit for the film’s success.
I don’t want to get bogged down by that too much though as, in my mind, a review should be more focussed on how well a film works rather than who was responsible for it doing so.
And Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari still works extremely well. I think the decades of hype and expectation I had coming into the film perhaps prevented me from giving the film top marks, but the reasons for why it has remained so well respected for so long are blatantly clear. Front and foremost is the film’s extreme expressionistic style. Caligari is cited as being hugely influential on film noir, horror movies and more, but, as a few critics and theorists have pointed out, very few, if any, films have actually copied its daring visual-art-infused approach. Rather than simply playing with lighting and camera angles to make dark and unsettling visuals, the sets are crafted in bizarre angles and shapes, and shadows and light patches are literally painted on to the walls. Even the make-up and costumes are exaggerated by strong blacks and whites. This all creates a creepily disorientating and surreal atmosphere, acting as a construct of Francis’ mental state. The closest modern filmmaker I can think of who adopts a vaguely similar style is Tim Burton, but even he doesn’t push the boat out as far as Weine (or whoever was in charge) did. I imagine he’s seen the film a few times though.
What’s interesting about the style is that if you take individual elements of the sets and production design they look rather crude and simplistic, but when presented as a whole within the construct of the film they help create a hugely effective and stunning vision. In fact, I found several shots so bizarrely beautiful I wanted to freeze the frames and hang them on my wall.
Perfectly complementing the bold style are two big but perfectly measured performances from Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, playing the chief ‘villains’. Krauss is the archetypal evil scientist character for the most part as Caligari, coming across as genuinely unpleasant and fiendish, before presenting a wholly different side after a revelation in the film’s later scenes. Veidt grabs your attention from the moment Caligari opens his cabinet (or rather coffin) and Cesare’s eyes slowly flicker open. He’s a great presence in the film, especially during his still quite shocking abduction of Jane. Like Veidt, he also gets a chance to subvert his character in the final minutes.
Although it might not feel as perfectly formed and fully gratifying as some of the other silent greats like Sunrise or The Passion of Joan of Arc, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari remains a daring and hugely influential (even if was never fully copied) visionary masterpiece. It was possibly the first (successful) true art house feature, pushing the boundaries of what cinema could mean and how it could be presented. Don’t let that put off those who favour more mainstream fare though, as this is also unsettling and pacey enough to keep modern horror fans thoroughly entertained despite the lack of gore or action. So do yourself a favour and tick this off your ‘to watch’ list like I did. You’ll probably want to see it again too, which is more than can be said for a number of the textbook ‘required viewing’ titles.