Misty Layne is a fantastic person who you might know from CinemaSchminema. She reviews all kinds of movies, though most have names like Alice in Murderland, Thankskilling and Killer School Girls from Outer Space. Those reviews not only make the website unique, but their honest, casual nature makes CinemaSchminema one of my favorite review sites out there, even though I haven’t seen half the movies she’s review. This makes me even happier to say that she was able to take time out of her busy life to review the classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was, I believe, the first silent film I ever saw and to be quite honest, it kind of blew me away. If you’re not familiar with this film, it’s a 1920 German film that’s widely touted as being one of the first horror movies ever made and is recognized as being one of the first films to use a framework story (a story within a story). It’s one of the most influential of the German Expressionist films and is also cited for having introduced the twist ending into the world of cinema.
First up the story – the story starts with Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly companion sharing stories when a distracted-looking woman, Jane (Lil Dagover), passes by. Francis calls her his betrothed and narrates an interesting tale that he and Jane share. Francis begins his story with himself and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), who are both good-naturedly competing to be married to the lovely Jane. The two friends visit a carnival in their German mountain village of Holstenwall, where they encounter the captivating Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and a near-silent somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whom the doctor keeps asleep in a coffin-like cabinet, controls hypnotically, and is displaying as an attraction. Caligari hawks that Cesare’s continuous sleeping state allows him to know the answer to any question about the future. When Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, Cesare bluntly replies that Alan will die before dawn tomorrow—a prophecy which is fulfilled. Alan’s violent death at the hands of some shadowy figure becomes the most recent in a series of mysterious murders in Holstenwall.
There’s a lot of mysterious murders going on and the townspeople are terrified. Is it Cesare, violently fulfilling his own prophecies? Is he really a somnambulist or is he more of a homicidal maniac? And if it’s him, is it actually him or is it the doctor who controls him who is out for blood? Or maybe, just maybe it isn’t either of them? I’m not going to tell you anymore because the twist ending is really quite good.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a work of surrealism. The film looks like it’s filmed almost entirely upon a stage with light washes reminiscent of a staged production. The set is full of odd angles and there are many sequences that are dream-like in their portrayal. One example of this is when Dr. Caligari goes to town hall to get a license to show Cesare off – the town magistrate is set way up high on an oddly shaped stool that makes him almost a giant compared to every one else. It’s somewhat disconcerting and somewhat eerie. Given the twist ending, this type of thing may be in there for a purpose but it could also just be an attempt at making this film all the more terrifying and is likely one of the concessions the writers had to make to give the film a more Expressionistic feel.
And speaking of terrifying, will it scare people today? Probably not. It’s a quiet horror and though people are dying it’s less than shocking for us. But the entire atmosphere works together to make for one fully creepy little film.
There’s a lot of fun little facts about this film – the production and the aftermath and how it influenced popular culture (and still does today). There was even a remake not too terribly long ago but I haven’t seen it and frankly don’t want to. I consider the original to be a masterpiece of filmmaking and if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly suggest you do!
Classic movie week is currently filled with writers, but if you would like to take part in a future film week, email me at Bishopthereviewer@gmail.com.