A return to Silent Sundays for us tonight! If you are not aware of our Sunday feature, on Sundays, we review the great, wonderful and sometimes terrible of films released during the Silent era. We have gone through such classics such as The General, The Mothering Heart, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. This week we go to a little known horror masterpiece known as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).
Francis (Friedrich Feher) details to an older man about a recent ordeal he and his stunned and dazed fiancé Jane (Lil Dagover) have encountered recently. Yes this is a slight horror version of Forrest Gump. The rest of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari takes us back to that rime in a village called Holstenwall. Where Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is secretly killing people from the town at night. Francis begins to investigate when one murder is too close to home.
We are given a great thriller with strong horror elements as we see Francis trying to corner Caligari and Cesare into revealing the truth. With Cesare taking actions upon himself. We then follow some wonderful sequences where Francis chases Caligari and the police chase down Cesare and the captured Jane.
Peak German expressionism is present in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The distorted sets and painted backgrounds to show the scope of the city and world that we are in. The design of the film is what makes the film stand out so much, even 100 years after its release. Everything is sharp and aggressive. There is an obvious lack of rounded objects other than the
The random lines across the walls and the floors help distort your point of perspective. Some of the corridors in the buildings are so angled that you do not know where they start and end. These fantastic graphic designs were carried out by Hermann Warm, Walter Reinmann and Walter Rohrig who thought a naturalistic look would not suit the narrative of the film.
It is an excellent design, as it allows for the story to warp and change when needed. It also fits with where the film goes at the end. This reversion from the American Hollywood style of production design truly makes the film stand out and for 1920. There most certainly will not have been too many films made that would have looked much like it.
Interestingly, when we are at home with Janes home, everything on the screen there is “normal”. This allows us to see that not everything is as it should be in this world if some sequences have a natural look. It sometimes jarring the audience to see a difference and there have been discussions that there should not have these sets look different. But I think it works, it shows a sense of safety and sanity in a world where everything is off-kilter.
While this is a film with unbelievable visuals we are stuck with standard static shots. Not that this is surprising considering this was pretty early into the silent era. The acting is very theatre our leads not holding much back in the subtlety of their performances. All of the actions are big and wild throughout and it does remove you a tad. Luckily the visuals help distract from this a little. Though considering the actual story, it, in the end, plays to the film’s advantage.
Throughout the story arcs, the audience is left to guess as to what we seeing on the screen is real. There are multiple layers in this film and it is a testament to how strong the script is for a film from its time.
Interestingly if stories of the production are to be believed. The ending scenes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was forced upon the writers. This was due to how the film portrayed German society by the head of the Decla-Bioscop film studio, Erich Pommer, as he had full control to make changes to the script where he saw fit.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has had such an amazing influence on cinema that it is hard to understate it. Doubly so when you consider the ending. I am keeping that as spoiler-free as possible for those who have never seen it (Cough YouTube). This is not only seen in the visuals that we see in showing a world off-kilter to how it should be and the meaning behind it. But also the actual narrative of the film.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari allows the audience to make up their mind regarding the ending and could very well be one of the first big feature releases that did this. A visually astounding picture that was as influential as they come to the future of the horror genre and cinema itself.