Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thursday Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

    One of the most influential films ever made…

    The German Expressionist movement in the years following World War I proved to be one of the most influential periods in filmmaking history. Without expressionism, there would be no film noir or modern horror, along with the styles and cinematography those genres popularized and seen so widely even in today’s films. Expressionism was born out of Germany’s ban on foreign films during the First Great War, increasing the need for more native German cinema. The budgets were significantly lower than the foreign competition, so the Expressionists had to make up through sheer imagination of design. No film better exemplifies the Expressionist movement than 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with it’s starkly designed and exaggerated sets and overall gothic feel.

    Telling the tale of a mad doctor (Caligari, played by Werner Krauss) who uses his somnambulist sideshow freak Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to carry out gruesome deeds, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s influence upon cinema is almost incalculable. The film was the first to utilize the twist ending, paving the way for everything from The Twilight Zone to M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. The dark and gruesome mood influenced Carl Laemmle and his filmmakers when they defined horror for a generation at Universal Studios, and the starkly-lit sets were brought over from Germany to Hollywood when many filmmakers fled the country from the Nazis and brought their distinctive styles with them. It’s influence is unmistakable, but as a film itself, how does it hold up?

    Rather well, it turns out. Being a silent film, the hallmarks of that period of filmmaking are on full display: director Robert Wiene lacks the flair of Murnau, Lang or Griffith, mostly content to play the action out in wide shots resembling a theatrical stage. The standout element of the film is in the intricate, surreal design. At first it’s a little jarring, as obvious cardboard cutouts are meant to portray buildings and unconvincing murals double in for landscapes, but as the film goes on the design becomes more and more involving - almost beckoning the viewer to become lost in the images. Utilizing painted shadows and shafts of light on the actual sets, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish where the real shadows end and the fake ones begin. Adding to the illusion is the almost M.C. Escher-esque design, where impossible perspectives are made to look two-dimensional until the characters move through them - most evident in a stunning chase between the police and Caligari, as the mad doctor runs through the surreal landscape which seemingly unfolds from the flat screen to an image with genuine depth. Adding to the bizarre imagery are the lead performances by Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, who bring an unnatural, eerie presence to the movie. Krauss scuttles across the screen like an overgrown spider in an overcoat, and Veidt provides fodder for future heavy metal bands with his pale face and tight-fighting black outfit.

    The highest compliment I can give is that the film is a nightmare made real… Much like the purpose of nightmares, horror movies should be ways to deal with our collective fears in safe, controlled environment. When they are at their best, horror films deal with very real worries and concerns of the day. Often considered the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari lingers in the mind long after the first viewing, giving birth to a style and genre of film previously unheard of.    

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