The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2 of 4)
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In 1920s Fritz Lang turned down directing this twisted film, and it was put into the hangs of Robert Wiene (pronounced with a German accent). What it became was an expressionist masterpiece of jagged set pieces and oblique shadows painted on everything in sight. It is a crooked, spatially challenged movie of impossible shapes and constructions. After The Cabinet was released, Expressionism fully adopted the belief that the peak should be larger than the base.
To me The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfection collision of what I know is historically great film and what is currently the most boring thing I can remember watching. Cabinet is short, it’s only an hour and ten minutes long, but silent films don’t age the same way as sound films. Even a “movie buff” will likely struggle through this early genre film. But let’s be honest most people watching Cabinet anyway must be movie buffs.
Quickly, the story opens on our hero Francis, who is in the woods with an older man. He begins telling a story from his past. The story is an outlandish flashback that takes up the meat of the entire movie. As Francis explains he was part of an investigation to uncover the murderous intentions of Dr. Caligari, an evil psychiatrist who studied somnambulism (a somnambulist is a person who never awakes). According to Francis, Dr. Caligari enslaves the somnambulist known as Cesare and through some mystical magic is able to control him and force the poor somnambulist to do things that he would find abhorrent if he were awake. Like murder innocent people.
I’ll go ahead and ruin the plot, because it’s historically important and for the sake of this post I must do so. Francis is actually the insane character, and all of his rambling about the “somnambulist” is just part of his imagined and completely crazy world. Francis is revealed as a patient at the psychiatric hospital where Dr. Caligari, or at least the person he believes is Dr. Caligari, is simply a good-natured hospital director.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an extremely important movie. To the high-class of the 20’s it was a German art film that showcased over-dramatized acting and stylized sets and makeup to create a fantasy world that no one had seen before. It pushed the borders and never let the audience forget it was a movie, everyone knew they were observing “art” (similar to the magical worlds of Méliès’ science fiction silents).
To the public Cabinet was a horror movie complete with one of the very first “monsters” in the form of Cesare the Somnambulist! Shoot, it even had the climactic gimmick that many of the last few decades best and most popular horror films are known for! Think The Sixth Sense, The Descent, or Shutter Island.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is undeniably a door-opening film. It blew the hinges off expectations to make room for monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula in 1931 and even serial psychopath’s like Norman Bates in the 60’s. And most importantly and greatly understated: it set a criterion for horror films with shadows, make-up, melodramatic acting, and thorough hysteria.
Thankfully, however, we have improved past many of the time weakened devices of Cabinet and now our horror films use better ones. Let’s use sound as an example. I like sound. I joke around with friends that I have the wonderful ability to hear in the dark. Out of nowhere I just spit out, “I can hear in the dark.” I do this when I’m reminded of the power of sound. Try to imagine any frightening thing you’ve seen on a screen. Go ahead take a second and think of something scary. Got it? Okay, now eliminate the associated noise.
I can’t imagine Psycho‘s shower scene without that screeching, or Frankenstein without thunder booming and Colin Clive screaming: “It’s alive!” over the downpour. Even cheap visual scares and jump cuts are heavily audio devices. Watch the trailer for the new movie The Roommate and you’ll hear what I mean.
My crux is this, film has made wonderful advancements so that we don’t have to watch movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We needed it, it got us places, but thank God we got there.