The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Review

Sneaking around.




(then again, this is nearly century old film)

by Ken B.

The sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari look like a surrealist play. These were the early days of cinema, and modeling off stage plays were a good place to start. Houses are jagged and slanted, trees are obviously flat, and the backgrounds are abstract. While this still holds the record as the most disturbing thing ever put on camera, there’s no denying that the idea of a man committing murders under hypnosis is quite unsettling, and it contains a twist ending worthy of discussion on its impact in dramatic cinema since.

Told in flashback, the film where a man named Francis (FRIEDRICH FEHÉR) is telling a man a story sparked by a woman in white walking by, which Francis immediately says is his fiancée. The story is fascinating, of the events that unfolded in a village during a town fair. There is a big attraction, one of a Dr. Caligari (WERNER KRAUSS) who claims to have a sleepwalker (somnambulist) sorts by the name of Cesare (CONRAD VEIDT) who withholds the answers to any question he is asked. When he is asked to reveal how long a person will live, the answer is “Till Dawn Tomorrow.”

The prediction is true.

The questioner, a friend of Francis, is murdered that night, and soon, it’s clear that this is the doing of one person. The big twist, of course, is not that Dr. Caligari is placing Cesare under hypnosis to do this, or that Cesare is the murderer. It is that there were no murders to begin with – Francis is a patient in an insane asylum. Cesare is, too, and “Dr. Caligari” is an employee of the asylum. It is impossible to make logic out of the ramblings of a crazy person, but I would venture the lines of the exact imagination stemming from the confines of the asylum itself, which plays a role in the fantasy. The doctor, giving the last line of the film, says that he now knows how to cure Francis, but doesn’t say exactly what.

I deeply admire the story and screenplay. Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, the script drew from experience, recalling a murder in Hamburg and a sideshow nearby, where there were claims of a mystical man who could predict the future. The original story was different – none of Francis’ delusional state exists.

There is a revolutionary and historical sense in the production design as well. All night scenes are bathed in a blue tint. I wonder of Christopher Nolan used this bit as inspiration for his minimalist color scheme in The Dark Knight. The stereotypically expressionist set design shows a sense of dare and ambition that we don’t see very often in movies (American ones, especially) today.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s contributions to modern filmmaking are innumerable. There is the twist ending, but it somehow makes sense. There is a story through color schemes, and color schemes tell the story. This is a movie that is necessary to watch because it is important, and because it isn’t half bad, either.

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