Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Posted: January 13, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920 Decla Film Ger. Dir. Robert Weine)


A quiet, small town, the sort of place you want to grow up in.

A fairly modernist and expressionistic movie from the early part of the century. On the surface it appears to be a murder mystery with a slightly odd sense of set design. Scratch that surface though, and you’ve ruined a perfectly good DVD and must go buy another one. The set design is actually in perfect harmony with the story and even has a use as early as the first scene. This is a story that is ostensibly told in flashback, when the flashback begins so does the set design. The set design helps create a sense of the unreliable narrator. This is the earliest example of unreliable narrator I’ve seen in movies, and everything in the movie is strangely subservient to that idea.


Silly ergonomic chairs, you’ve got to crouch just to stay in shot.

The story itself begins with the hero of the movie telling a tale to another man. He explains that this is a story worse than any other the man has heard or even the one he has just told about spirits following him. He then goes on to tell his tale, which throws us into the expressionist world that has drawn so many people to the movie.


Just another happy day at the fair.

The world is distorted by its set design, which in some cases means that the camera can only shoot them from one angle. Doors hang so strangely, often because the walls themselves are slanted on steep angles, that they can hardly be opened without swinging back and slamming themselves shut. Light beams are painted on the floor and walls, and in many places the story points are emphasized by the way the sets are constructed and painted. Large rough strokes are used deliberately to set up the bizarre nightmare world the story is told in, the not quite done feeling adds to the sense of unease you get while watching. The strange sense is even taken to the title cards, where the little bit of written information is presented, which themselves are filled with odd shapes, lines and fonts.


Funny… I’ve never heard it called that before.

One of the problems this movie faces though, is that people get so startled by the spectacle that they forget this movie actually has an extremely interesting plot. I don’t say story, because the parts of the story that don’t include Caligari and Cesare do get a little bogged down, but their parts are fantastic. The tale being told is actually very good when we stick to the people who, for want of a better term, are our monsters for this movie.


Only when it was too late did he discover where the “exhibit” was being “displayed”.

Caligari is introduced almost immediately and becomes far more compelling and interesting than any of the so called main characters. As is so often the case with horror, the ordinary people are ordinary and thus are not terribly interesting. We come to see monsters, not to see normal people. He and Cesare, are really the only ones who seem to fit wholly into this world that we’ve been thrust into, making them the point of solace in this film. Everyone else seems to belong to the real world, so they are the ones that don’t fit instead of our two twisted monsters. This strangely makes us more in touch with them than any of the people who are supposed to be the heroes of this film.


One day I’ll move away from this place and go live someplace with an objective landscape.

In the story, Caligari is presented to us as the purveyor of a side show act, a somnambulist who tells the future. The problems arise when Cesare, the somnambulist in question, begins to foretell deaths that come true. The hero Francis finds his best friend Alan murdered and decides to take the case of finding the killer himself. He goes to Jane, the girl that he and Alan loved, to tell her of his intent to solve this murder.


In the garden of Eden baby, don’t you know that I’ll always love you…

From here on, it’s difficult to discuss the rest of the movie without tripping into Spoilerville. For that reason I’m going to put the rest of the tale behind a cut. If you’ve not seen the movie you may wish to be spared having the shocks of the movie spoiled. Of course you may feel that the re-watchablity of the movie speaks for itself and possibly it won’t bother you. Also, you may wish to see the rest of my nifty screen caps.


Mad am I? We’ll see who is mad around here!

Worst Bed and Breakfast place ever!

The killer is of course the somnambulist Cesare, under the guiding hand of the naughty Dr. Caligari. A short subplot pops up in which it looks like it might be someone else for like 2 minutes, but trust me it’s Caligari. He’s been using a dummy to cover up the fact that he sends Cesare out to commit dastardly crimes. Francis even sits and watches Caligari spend a night watching the wax dummy while Cesare goes out to kill Jane. He totally fails to kill Jane, too taken with her radiant beauty and opts for a kidnapping instead.


Later generations would learn that glass, and not just frames, helped a lot in keeping dangerous lunatics from getting in.

He carries Jane out into the twisted cityscape, with the townspeople close behind. He drops Jane off in a painted bit of light before running off and collapsing in the forest never to be seen or heard from again. Well, they do find him in the fields and have a look at him, but it’s not really a big scene. He’s only a prop from the moment he falls onto the painted canvas that serves as the floor.


It can go through a steel drum and still do delicate brain surgery!

After we dispatch with the killer, it becomes time to hunt down the master. They find Caligari’s books and journals which leads them to discover the truth! Caligari, as it turns out, is the director of the local asylum, and used his position to acquire Cesare for his experiments. It also turns out that Caligari isn’t even his actual name. Since the real name isn’t given in the movie so I’m forced to use the name I have. I find it odd that there is never a name takced on beyond Caligari for this character.


Scuze me, do you has a flavor? (boy that joke won’t make sense when I link back to this review in three years, will it?)

Caligari used Cesare as his instrument of murder, which he decided to commit as a result of some madness that overtook him. Armed with the knowledge of who, what and something of the why the murders were committed. By the time the movie is to this point, Francis has more or less taken over the whole of the investigation and has made himself the central focus of the tale. Even though mostly he lets others perform the actions, he’s the central instigator by that point. Having revealed the director as the mad man behind all this horror, Francis lets the other doctors tie him up in a strait jacket and stuff him in a cell.


After the great white paint disaster, criminals started not going places just because there was a line to follow.

And evidently, that is where the movie would have ended if the original writers had been given their way to make the movie how they wanted. Most stories told say that the producers didn’t want such a dark and macabre ending to the movie, so one that’s even more subversive is added on. It turns out that Francis is in a mad house, and that all the players in the movie are inmates at the asylum. Jane thinks she’s a queen, Cesare is a gentle flower loving lunatic and the director of the asylum is a dedicated doctor with hopes of treating a patient.


When you are bad here, they put you in the pointy room.

In some ways, people dislike this ending because it makes the whole story just a lie and a delusion. They see it as the same kind of cop-out as the ‘just a dream’ ending. I like it, not because it’s an explanation for the sets, but because the way the story travels it makes the way Francis suddenly becomes the central character make sense. If this is all his delusion, the story makes much more sense. It’s almost makes the more more deranged that it’s all in his fantasy than the first ending would have been.


Look, Morrie, you borrowed Jimmy’s money. You’ve gotta pay him back.

One of the problems that this movie is that there aren’t enough good actors in it. I’ve often thought that one of the biggest problems people have with silent movies isn’t the lack of sound, but rather the fact that usually only one or two people in these movies are really worth watching. One of the things that has to be done in silent movies is an exaggeration of facial features and gestures to get the story across without any dialogue. There are always the title cards which give you some idea of what’s going on, with a little dialogue, but for the most part everything has to be interpreted through pantomime.


New flesh is delivered to the pervy old man convention.

As a result, people either don’t emote enough, or they go into histrionics that look foolish. Even in comedies it’s can be difficult to take the people on screen seriously enough to go with the caricatures on the screen. When you’ve only got two people who can manage the narrow bridge between interesting pantomime and restraint to avoid over acting, it does become difficult. Of course in some of those movies, you don’t even get two. Sadly in some movies you don’t even really get one.


Damn graffitti artists!

I’m always a little surprised that this movie has never really been given a full blown remake. There was a shot for shot remake made last year with the actors standing on green screens and the backgrounds added later from screen caps, but that hardly counts. I mean a really big, grand remake. Tim Burton’s been calling back to this movie for a good part of his career, so I think he could do a remake with class.


I’ll show you who’s crazy! I’ll shave your @*%#ing cats! That’ll show you!

My copy of the movie comes from Image Entertainment. There are a few problems with it. You may have noticed a line at the top of a few of the caps. I understand other versions don’t have this bar, which is evidently a mistake from one of only pieces of source material they could get their hands on at the time. As I said, I understand other versions don’t have this. There is a fairly interesting but not perfect commentary on the disc, which is good but leaves me wondering about a few things here and there. I’ve found in subsequent research that some things were left out that probably should have been included, but these aren’t big deals.


In the court of the mad

All in all, a classy production and something any fan of old horror should get a hold of.

Official Score:
71 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

You can watch the whole thing for free if you want, or you could buy a copy.

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