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It struck me last night that I've never seen a serious silent film.
Everyone's seen a silent comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the
Keystone Cops... They've all been immortalized in the minds of every film
viewer, and I enjoy them as much as anyone. But it seems a strange and
almost disrespectful lack to never have seen anything but comedy; so many
silent films were created, and the only ones I've seen starred waddling
It was partially for that reason that I rented this movie. I had read about it on a film review site (the name of which escapes my memory) and decided it was worth the half-hour drive to the video store. The basic premise is that of a man relating a story that happened to him and his friends - their unnerving discovery of a crazed mountebank, Dr. Caligari, and his prophetic sleepwalker. It follows a series of murders and growing madness, keeping you in constant suspense and confusion until the very last scene.
There's a period of adjustment when watching it - unfortunately necessary for a modern audience. The titles seem too slow. The camera seems to hold on scenes too long. The makeup on the actors' faces seem ghostly and horrible - even on the hero.
But before long, the movie has you in its grip. You spend time staring at the architecture - buildings, doors, and windows that would have been funny in a Dr. Seuss book. In the film, they make you uneasy. The whole atmosphere is of a world gone wrong; like a dream worthy of Salvador Dalí. Nothing is square or straight. The buildings loom in on you; windows sweep upward, slanted or curved; doors are obscenely angled holes beckoning you to enter and be trapped inside.
Throughout, the story defies expectations. Small plot twists confuse and mislead you until the final surprise, completely tearing down everything you thought the movie was about. Strange shadows and shots from inside alleys paint the film's world as something terrible, never allowing you a normal look at the village, never allowing you to enjoy the quaintness of it. Through it all, the grinning, hunched figure of Dr. Caligari hangs in your mind, pushing out rational thought.
The movie is well worth your time; there's a certain pleasure in trying to capture the feeling of terror an early audience, unaccustomed to the visual effects we see every day, would have had the first time they saw this movie. It's an intellectual terror in the grand old style, giving you the same thrill you get from reading Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At the risk of sounding cliché: two thumbs up!
Made in 1919, "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" was literally years
ahead of its time and remains a triumphant accomplishment in the genre
of German Expressionism. Remembered mainly for its stunning sets, which
featured crooked buildings and twisted landscapes, "Cabinet" also
boasts one of the first attempts at a twist ending, something quite new
and shocking for its time.
Told mainly from the point of view of Francis, a young man who lives in the small village of Holstenwall, Germany, "Cabinet" tells the tale of murder and madness which seems to accompany the arrival of a carnival. Francis and his best friend Alan go to the carnival and are presented with the sideshow attraction Cesare the Somnambulist, a gaunt and hideous young man who spends his life sleeping in a coffin-like cabinet and seems able to predict the future when awake. Cesare (played by a young Conrad Veidt, who later went on to play the evil Nazi general in Casablanca) informs Alan that he will soon die, and indeed, Alan is found murdered the next morning. Suspicion turns to the eerie somnambulist and his strange keeper, a man called Caligari. As Francis desperately tries to solve the mystery and find his friends killer, it seems that the beautiful young Jane, beloved by both Alan and Francis, has been targeted as the next victim.
This is a genuinely creepy film which delves deep into the mysteries of the abnormal mind...an uncomfortable journey to say the least. Everyone is suspect and, in the end, we must ask ourselves: "who is really the mad one here?"
Subtle and ingenious, we see the world the way an insane person might see it; warped and confused, a nightmarish terrain where nothing makes sense and balance is not to be found.
The impact of this film is still being felt and seen today, and for good reason. It is a shocking, disturbing masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Dr. Caligari presents the viewer with a frightening vision of the world
through the lens of German Expressionism.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It's truly fascinating. And, it really (really) is an art film, since it purposefully and strikingly exhibits the new art of the German inter-war milieu. So, be prepared for an other-worldly excursion into the "total work of art," or Gesamtkunstwerk, of this monumental and influential film.
This film is best seen at night, alone, and with the modern soundtrack which is available on the fully restored version. If the DVD you're watching does not have (a) choice of two soundtracks (traditional music and much-scarier modern track), (b) tinted inter-titles set in a surrealistic (actually expressionistic) font, and (3) is fairly high quality, then send it back and get the restored version. The quality and completeness of silent films are a major factor in experiencing the art form as it was meant to be experienced. The modern sound track in Dr. Caligari makes the film much more accessible for modern audiences (the eerie effects in the modern track heighten the feel of the film for the modern viewer) - try both tracks, you'll see.
It's surprising how frightening and impactful this film can be. You will have dreams about it, I promise. These between-the-wars German films are riddled with creepy foreshadowing for us in the present, who know what was about to happen in Germany.
Anyway, I think the film is best viewed with NO NOTICE. You don't really want to know the plot (the meaning of the end of the film can be interpreted in radically different ways - keep that in mind when it happens). Only one note - artistically the German Expressionist movement is worth reading about after you see the film - you'll notice the theme of "death and the maiden" woven into this artwork. Also, this film is the direct ancestor of films like "Nightmare Before Christmas" and a lot more - you'll recognize the Expressionist look in many presentations in television and film.
WARNING - I would NOT show this film to children. It's very subtly and psychologically undermining - you'll be thinking and freaking about this thing for months to come - such a thing shouldn't be experienced by children - it's an adult, art film (no, not that kind) made for adults.
Like so many of the films from the silent era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
gets overlooked (if you can even find it!) for big budget duds, and runny
romantic comedies. Directors of the period like Griffith, Lang, Eisenstien,
and Caligari's Wiene, are never given the credit they deserve. And if
is given, it is in small cultish circles in various pockets around the
The set design here is amazing, not a single right angle can be found in any one of the sets. This may not only apply to the disjointed and distorted characters in the film, but also the state of Germany at the time. After all, the film was made in the dark ages in Germany between WWI and WWII. This point is validated by Siegfried Kracauer, with his notion of how the main character of Dr. Caligari can be easily interpreted to Hitler, and vice versa. Both controlled subjects with a form of "brainwashing", both were upset with current forms of society and government, and both were masters of deception. In a period where Germans were looking for direction, and let's face it, authority as well, Dr. Caligari embodied it fully.
In the area of the players, all the names in the film turn out a literally "speechless" performance. Dagover, Krauß, and especially Veidt as Cesare (pronounced Chez-a-ray) are excellent in the use of gestures and motion to get their point across without using words. The camera, stationary as in most early features, uses the mise-en-scene effectively, letting us identify with characters such as Francis and Jane, and disjointing us from Caligari, and the Criminal.
The use of lines and stripes, not only in the sets but in small places like in the good doctor's hair and on his gloves, adds to the telling of the character. Colour tints of the B&W film also play a special part in bringing the whole film together. An amazing sequence where Caligari reveals his true madness, pits Caligari stumbling through the unequal streets of Germany while being haunted by textual ramblings written in the air. A marvelous achievement for it's time. And it adds so much.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari has changed the way I look at horror films, and even films in general. I urge anyone reading this to pick up this film. The DVD offering is utterly fantastic with the restored print, an audio essay of the film, and production notes. Bypass the overblown "motion picture events of the year", and pick up Caligari, quite possible the greatest motion picture event in the history of motion pictures.
This picture is a masterpiece ! How could someone think in something like
this at that time ? The film has really good casting ! Werner Krauss is
excellent playing Doctor Caligari and Conrad Veidt (Cesare) too !
This movie has an obscure and bizarre mood makes the film looks really scary sometimes ... The painted scenario gave the film the touch that it needed ! It puts you in a nightmarish world , gives you the sensation of claustrofobia , depression and madness ! The objects have a strange shape and an irregular geometry that collaborate for the maintenance of the dark mood !
But the most important thing in this motion picture is the open ended story ! You´re never sure about the end ! It has so many ways of interpretation... It´s useless to try to define "one end" to this movie. You´ll be always asking yourself about the legitimacy of the man´s vision of the story.
It´s not scary , just sometimes , as I said. But it´s dark and it uses the shadows and lights effects so well that I was amazed the first time I saw and I still amazed ! German Films of that time were really good !
Congratulations to Robert Wienne and his cast ! It´s a masterpiece of madness and paranoia!
Rating : *****/******
The original message of this film is fairly pedestrian (an outcry
against the weak authority in Germany at the time), although the
political intrigue surrounding the production led to a fascinating
framing story which re-established "the authorities," and in turn made
the UFA happy enough to distribute the film. This suggests that in its
own time the political message of the film was fairly powerful, but
compared to the work done in such films as The Golem, Nosferatu, and
Metropolis it is not so far-reaching.
What sets this film apart from its contemporaries is its absolute commitment to the expressionist movement. Mutated sets, heavy dark/light makeup, light and shadow, and a Gothic storyline are classic expressionism. The photography is beautiful and so crisp that it creates an eerie sense that this hellish scene is actually the real world, and that our everyday lives are the delusional Technicolor dream of a madman.
While there are many better movies made in this period, I feel that this one is the pinnacle of the imagery that is characteristic of the expressionist art form. It is an absolute must-see for anyone who is interested in the Expressionist movement.
I saw this film on the same day that I saw Trainspotting, and those two
films made me realise what cinema can really do. This is a film that tells
it EXACTLY as the film makers see it. The warped visuals say more about its
subjects than words ever could. The travelling fair is as twisted and ugly
as all travelling fairs seem to be, and the expressionist sets and lighting
sum up perfectly the sense of urban alienation in a very unnerving way. It's
story is simple enough to be accessible, but don't expect a straightforward
film - just let it speak to you.
The most important film in horror. Moody and shocking this chiller is the height of German Expressionist cinema and the prototype for whole genres in horror. Using violent contrasts of light and shadow, surreal settings and distorted camera angles to represent madness, chaos and psychosis, its influence is still seen even today in the likes of John Carpenter and the emerging actor and director Stephen Armourae, who has been also influenced by the film in his artwork and as the composer Stephen Armourae-Perry. Its twists towards the end put everyone from Hitchcock to the maker of 'The Village' into pale imitation. This film is now neglected by the public as it is a silent film. It really needs to be seen and appreciated more. Robert Wiene the director clearly inspired by the First World War transferred that shock and terror onto the screen with all its starkness. Hos purpose was to present moral ambiguity of the plot and action as a commentary on the paranoia, imbalance and uncertainty of post was Germany. And another parallel: not only has it influenced Stephen Armourae, he too is a hypnotist and recurring themes in his writings and plays are the moral ambiguities of insanity and culture, and German society of the twentieth century.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Francis (Friedrich Feher) and an old man are sitting and Francis begins to
tell him a story, hoping to top the one the man just told him. The story is
about a fair that came to his hometown of Hostenwall and a man, Dr. Caligari
who was one of the vendors. Caligari's submission to the fair is his
somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who has been asleep for 25 years and,
under Dr. Caligari's willing, is about to awaken. He does and Dr. Caligari
tells the crowd to ask him a question, for he knows the future. Francis is
there with his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), and Alan walks up
and asks Cesare how long he'll live, to which Cesare replies that he'll be
dead by dawn.
Alan and Francis both long for the same woman, Jane (Lil Dagover) and after they all three go home, we see, inside Alan's house, the shadows of he and his killer fighting on his bedroom wall. Francis goes to tell the police after he realizes the somnambulist's prophecy has come true. Back at Dr. Caligari's place, we see him feeding gruel to Cesare as he lay in a coffin. Another attempted murder takes place but turns out to be the work of a common crook not involved with Cesare and Dr. Caligari. More happens that's not really important. Francis goes to an insane asylum to see if the fled Dr. Caligari is a patient there but the worker he speaks with tells him he must go see the head of the institute for patient information, as he's not allowed to divulge that sort of thing. So Francis goes to the head's office (a skeleton stands upright in the corner) and it turns out to be Dr. Caligari himself.
Francis gets the police over there and after looking through his books, they discover a historical book about the mythical Caligari, who did just what Dr. Caligari is doing now, back in 1093. When Dr. Caligaru arrives he goes insane, saying he must become Caligari and doctors in the institute put him in a straight jacket. Then the telling of the story is done. The film adds a framing device, though, in the present with Francis and the man he's told the story to.
The two go back to the institute, Cesare is in the corner and Francis warns the old man not to accept one of his prophesies, for he should surely die. Jane is there also, and when Francis asks her to marry him, she says she cannot marry someone not of royal blood (huh?). Then down the stairs comes Dr. Caligari, whom Francis quickly gets in a scuffle with. He's grabbed by the doctors and taken upstairs. Dr. Caligari comes to the conclusion that Francis is manic and that his mania is caused by his delusion that Dr. Caligari is in fact the mythic Caligari who would wander from town to town with Cesare killing townsfolk. The last scene is of Dr. Caligari saying he has a sure-fire cure for Francis' mania.
So was Francis the real Caligari? Did Francis kill Alan in the hopes of getting Jane to marry him? (After all, we never do see his killer.) With this appended narrative twist, the entire story comes into question. I have a feeling a lot of people would hate this but I found it very interesting, maybe even historic.
The film is very dreamlike. All silent films are sort of spooky, but this one is more otherworldly. Everything is distorted and the camera, with that strange blackening, gives it an unstable touch like our most vivid dreams have. It's like something's been placed over the lens in order to highlight certain characters or visuals and cover up something else. I'm assuming the film used on-set camera tricks.
The expressionist sets consist of slanted walls, crooked doors, weirdly misshapen glasses, paint splashed on stairs that bend. A background that is clearly a wall with painting. Trees that look like wires. The characters' faces are all pale white and the blacks are all stark. Cesare, specifically, looks like a cross between Frankenstein's Monster and Edward Scissorhands. The houses don't look like houses, they look like pieces of wood painted to look like a stage set.
I can see influence from this film in the set designs of Tim Burton especially, and the narrative twist at the end must have influenced David Lynch in "Mulholland Drive."
The print I saw was from 1992 and for a movie that's 83 years old, I was very impressed. There was very little grain and the lighting was fine. The only complaint I had was that some of the handwriting from Dr. Caligari's writings was a bit difficult to read and that has nothing to do with the print. The music is all organ that comes booming in whenever something evil -- usually Dr. Caligari -- is onscreen.
It's hard to judge movies like these, but the visuals are wonderful, the music is spooky, the acting suitable and the pacing fine (it's a little over an hour). I would say this is an essential film, and unlike many "groundbreaking" classics, it's like nothing else you've seen.
Having only started discovering silent movies recently, I don't have more than a handful of other non-talkies to compare it to. This however was not only one of the best, most compelling and unique silents I have seen, but also a great flick overall. It's all been said before, I'm sure, but I'll say it again: this is a milestone of German Expressionist cinema. It is also a class-A mind-phuck movie (excuse my French), one of those stories that'll leave you eternally scratching your head trying to figure out what you've seen, what to believe and what can be a plausible explanation for most of the creepy mysteries you've just witnessed. Right from the very opening scene, seemingly suspended in an otherworldly dimension, maybe somewhere in between life and death, in which the first line spoken is: "There are spirits everywhere", you realise you are in for a spooky ride (this is the ultimate Halloween movie, come to think of it!) Having studied theatre set and costume design at Rome's art school for a year before going to university, I was obviously completely fascinated by the set design choices here. Buildings and furniture, props and painted backdrops are elongated and deformed into blocky, savage, expressionistic, perspective-defying and proportion-less forms. Even the intertitles weren't of the traditional sort. The result is obviously one of unsettling the viewer further into believing themselves suspended in a reality where anything could happen - anything horrible or nightmarish, obviously. Nothing is as it seems, right to the very end. Btw, on a more frivolous note, I thought the character of Cesare the Somnambulist looked uncannily like something that might have influenced Tim Burton into creating Edward Scissorhands, or maybe even more, the look of some of the characters in Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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