The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Fig 1. Caligari Poster
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is an interesting movie to say the least. It is black and white and silent but despite all that it is filled with plot twists, murder, love, deceit and drama, everything a modern classic would have. Of course it won't be everyone's cup of tea but it really is a movie masterpiece if you take a moment to appreciate it and realise a story this complex was captured on film and created into a movie in 1919/1920.
Speaking of story this movie has a difficult one to follow. This can be attributed to the fact that the movie is silent and so there is very little that can give exposition to us but also because the movie is rather cleverly made. It is one of those movies that can change your perspective every time you watch it if a person points out even the littlest detail that you may not have seen before. My synopses of the movie at the moment is that the lead character Mr. Francis who seems like a rather troubled man is telling his story to a stranger (who in my mind is possibly a shrink, having seen the movie beginning to end) and he recounts a fantastical tale of an insane doctor, Dr. Caligari, who has schemes to murder people using a somnambulist called Cesare. A somnambulist is a person who is trapped in a death-like sleep however they can be awakened and ordered to fulfil tasks without question, like a sleeper agent. As Mr. Francis recounts his tale events transpire and Mr. Francis' best friend Mr. Alan is murdered by Cesare and then Cesare attempts to murder the woman Mr. Francis loves, Jane Olsen, but fails as he finds her beautiful so instead resorts to kidnapping her. The kidnapping fails as Cesare runs out of strength and so he places her on the ground and flees into the night. While this is happening Mr. Francis who has started to become paranoid is watching Dr. Caligari and what he believes is Cesare sleep throughout the night. This rules out the fact that Caligari and Cesare are involved in the murders in his mind, however he still has his suspicions and so the next night he returns to Caligari's house with the police and they search Cesare's Box (Cesare sleeps in a box). They discover that the 'Cesare' in the box is actually a doll and Dr. Caligari runs from the police, however he is chased by Mr. Francis. Now this is where the movie gets confusing. Caligari is chased to an asylum and disappears inside. Mr. Francis follows him and asks the people who work there if Dr. Caligari was a patient there. They reply to him that there is no Dr. Caligari in the asylum to their knowledge however the Director had just arrived and he (Mr. Francis) could ask him. Mr. Francis goes to the Director's office and who is sitting behind the desk? None other than Dr. Caligari! Francis quickly leaves the room and tells one of the workers that the Director is Dr. Caligari. See? I told you it gets confusing. A bit more confusion to go though. That evening Francis returns to the asylum with the police and they look through the Director's research notes and discover that Caligari was infact an 11th century mystic who would wander from town to town with his somnambulist and murder townsfolk. We the audience experience some flashbacks and discover that is what the Director was trying to replicate, or was it? See this is where I believe everyone has their own thoughts on what happened and these are mine. You see during one of these 'flashbacks' we see the Director get admitted to his own asylum and then they finish. The next shot we see is subtly different and I will explain why in a moment but in it we see Francis walk out of the asylum and into the courtyard with the stranger from the beginning. They walk past Cesare, who if he did murder those people should be in prison should he not? Also Cesare is awake and holding flowers which is also strange but pieces of the puzzle start to come together in your head. We also see Francis walk up to Jane who is sitting in the courtyard and asks her to marry him. She doesn't even look at him and says no because she is the queen and cannot marry outside royal blood. We are told throughout the film that she is in love with Francis so this is also very strange. Then comes the most significant part of the scene. The Director walks out of the asylum and down into the courtyard. Didn't we just see him get put into the institute?! As he walks into the courtyard he is attacked by Mr. Francis who is subdued and taken into the asylum. We finish with the Director saying “At last I recognise his mania, he believes me to be the mythical Caligari. Astonishing! But I think I know how to cure him now.” I believe that Francis lost his friend Mr. Alan and it sent him mad, he was admitted to the asylum and he blamed the death on a story character, Dr. Caligari, making various people in the institute into characters from the novel, imagining it all. This can most prominently be seen in the movie sets and backdrops, remember how I mentioned there was a subtle difference earlier? This is in the courtyard back drop. Everything in this backdrop is very square and shaped smoothly and evenly whereas before all the back drops were twisted and sinister with clawing shadows and huge contrast between light and dark. “The exaggerated, largely cold and sinister look of all subjects and objects is the first hint that we just might be inside someone’s nightmare.” (Kaufman)
Fig 2. Courtyard Fig 3. Town Square
Fig. 4 Cesare
“Robert Wiene's silent classic has always been considered a keystone of the horror genre.” (Parkinson). It is easy to see why people would consider this film to be the forefather of modern motion pictures especially impressionist films and horror films. In so many films made since this one you can see reoccurring themes, scenes and styles. When I watched I was reminded instantly of 3 movies, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, Bram Stokers Dracula and Edward Scissorhands, all for different reasons. The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus takes on a similar idea that there is this surreal, story telling world however as the movies draw to a close we discover there is a darker reason for the world existing, in Caligari it is because it is imaginary, in a mental patient's head and in Parnassus it is because there is an on going fight with the Devil. I was reminded of Dracula plainly and simply through the scene where Cesare breaks into Jane's room, it reminded me of how the supposedly evil, monstrous character can find something beautiful still and I think the exaggerated shadows also reminded me of Dracula when he is in his castle and of course the fact that Cesare sleeps in a coffin shaped box is very vampiric. Lastly I was reminded of Edward Scissorhands because of the establishing shot which showed the sprawling town of Hostenwall rising into the sky on the side of a hill. The spindly sharp style of the town reminded me of the house at the top of the hill in Edward Scissorhands and as the film progressed it was easy to see where Tim Burton got his style and inspiration from, it is particularly obvious in his animations like Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Another theme that Burton and of course many other directors have taken from this film is the gothic idea behind it, pale faces and dark clothes, contrasting to give a haunting appearance. No one can deny it is possibly the most influential pieces of cinema ever created. “Undoubtedly one of the most exciting and inspired horror movies ever made.” (DP)
In conclusion I believe that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be one of the greatest movies ever created, certainly not in my top 5 favourite but I appreciate that without this film so many other films I have come to know and love over the years wouldn't exist. It was in its time a visionary masterpiece which would have made audiences feel intrigued and uncomfortable at the same time by utilizing the very impressionist style backgrounds which gave the gothic horror and even more nightmarish feel. Also I think that some of the shots and ideas where amazingly done considering that the film was made in 1920 and I do believe it is a work of genius for its time.
Kaufman, S, (2014), Little White Lies, http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/theatrical-reviews/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-27635
Parkinson, D (Unknown), Empire Online, http://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?DVDID=6268
DP, (Unknown), Timeout, http://www.timeout.com/london/film/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari
Wiene, R. Fig 1. Caligari Poster (1920) - http://cdn8.openculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Cabinet-Of-Dr.-Caligari-.jpg (accessed on 23/09/14)
Wiene, R. Fig 2. Courtyard Still (1920) - http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-iWZAzocX-LQ/TrapeHCnV2I/AAAAAAAAAJc/dUF0eM2mQaM/s1600/catphoto.jpg (accessed on 23/09/14)
Wiene, R. Fig 3. Town Square Still (1920) - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/fd/CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01.jpg (accessed on 23/09/14)
Wiene, R. Fig 4. Cesare Still - (1920) http://www.cultureshockmiami.com/sites/default/files/styles/305x225/public/images/2013_cabinetofdrcaligari_tw.jpg (accessed on 23/09/14)