Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Film Review: Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari/ The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, is a 1919-1920 German Expressionist film by Director Robert Weine. A pinnicle of the horror genre, as well as being one of the first films to delve in the category, exploring themes of sanity through the use of both story and staging.
Sophie Monks Kaufman stats in her review of the film for the site 'littlewhitelies.co.uk',"Just as dreams take complex personalities and boil them down to friend or foe, so too The Cabinet of Dr Caligari brims with archetypes: the demented doctor, the handsome hero, the innocent ingĂ©nue." Here Kaufman is describing the way Weine takes basic character tropes but gives them complexed characteristics, that the veiwer would only understand from watching the entire film. This makes the cast in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari ambiguous in their goals, especially towards the end of the film regarding Francis.
Fig 1. Poster for Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari 1919
The film centers around a young man named Francis telling an old man about a "great ordeal" he and his fiancé, Jane, endured back in their home town. From there the film is set as a flashback, beginning with Francis and his friend Alan going to the town fair and witnessing a performance by Dr Caligari and his somnambulist, Cesare, who predicted that Alan would die the next dawn. The plot turns into a sort of murder mystery as Weine twists the story in a way that the audience doesnt expect, becoming pioneer in suspence horror.

However, even though the film is one of the first horror movies around, it is a little dated, especially with the pacing some scenes go by so quickly while others, for example the diary scene in the asylum near the end of the film, can go on for around 10 minutes. The onscreen text showing the characters speech doesnt help as it stays on screen for so long that much of the audience have read it 7 times out of boredom.

Fig 2. Scene from the film, featuring the Somnambulist Casere running away with a kidnapped Jane under his arm

The use of an unrealistic staging, by making the set of the town, crooked, opposing and tightly packed; this can be seen in scenes with large crowds. Weine was able to give of a sense that this world is "twisted" and "broken" from the way that everything in the film looks wrong in some way, doors and buildings at strange angles, how the background made no attempt to look realistic, as well as how the camera stays still throughout, with a few exemptions, as if the film was actual a stage play. Even the characters themselves looked unrealistic both in their looks and the way they over exaggerate their movements assisted in giving off a vibe of something not right in the world.

C.A. Lejeune from the Gaurdian (3/11/1923) comments on the use of set: "He [Weine] knows how much evil is visible through a "wrong shape" (in the Chestertonian sense), whether it be the shape of Caligari's visiting card, of the wooden crosses in a graveyard (notice that the true crosses are formed by the shadows), of tree or hedge, or of an old man's top hat". Weine is able to give a sense of evil by twisting objects in unusual ways that are not normal to us, leading to the majority of the objects and sets on screen to not look as they should. As well as this, the way Weine uses lighting and shadow to make the shadows of the crosses in the graveyard and how they form on the characters faces, especially in close ups of Dr Caligari and Criminal when he is questioned. Lejuene compares the set as Chestertorian, refering to H. R. Chesterton, a writer, poet and art critic who was known as the "prince of paradox", having a writing style that turns popular sayings and proverbs on their head.

Overall, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is a marvel of story, character depths and set design. While it does have some issues in its pacing, Weine was able to make a riveting story and disconstruct stereotypical character traits in such a way that as made The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a very memorable and icon horror movie despite the time period the film was made in and the limits silent films had. As Nick Hilditch of the BBC puts it "It is such an apt use of the medium as it existed in the first quarter of the 20th Century that it is difficult to imagine the film done better with the benefit of sound, colour or any innovation"

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