Wednesday, August 24, 2016
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: A Review
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
Let's put this out there: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not, repeat, NOT scary in the traditional sense, particularly I figure for today's audiences, who consider something like Insidious or any Paranormal Activity the height of horror. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, however, extremely atmospheric, and a touch frightening in how it creates this mad world of somnambulists and generally crazed people.
Told primarily in flashback, our narrator, Francis (Friedrich Fehere) tells of how his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) became a virtual white zombie. She, Francis, and their mutual friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) had a solid group, despite the fact both were in love with Jane. At a fair, Alan and Francis go see a new act, that of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). It is to control his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Alan asks how long with he live, and Cesare's answer is chilling: he has until dawn.
True to his word, Alan is found dead the next day, stabbed to death. Are Cesare and Caligari holders of supernatural powers, or is there something more sinister, more 'insidious' at play? Francis and Jane investigate, and the investigation takes a shocking turn when Cesare abducts Jane and races through the village, chased by a mob. Cesare dies as a result of shock, apparently, but Dr. Caligari has run off to the safety of an insane asylum.
Going in, Francis asks to speak to the director...who turns out to be Caligari himself! We learn the backstory to this insanity. Apparently the good Herr Doctor has been delving into the occult practices of a previous Dr. Caligari and had become obsessed with controlling people's minds, to see if he could get those under his control to go against their own morality and do his evil bidding. The hospital staff and Francis manage to capture the mad Dr. Caligari. With that, Francis ends his tale of deranged wickedness.
Then...we go into the asylum, and find that Francis, far from being the hero, may in fact be bonkers himself, for he IS a patient at the asylum. Furthermore, his fiancée Jane appears not to know him, but claims herself a queen, and Cesare is very much alive, wandering about. Alan sees the hospital director, who is the same 'Caligari' and goes after him, thinking him the mad scientist. Restrained in the straight-jacket, the doctor is ready to treat him...but is it the rational asylum director, or Dr. Caligari himself?
When people think 'German Expressionism', they may subconsciously be thinking about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The entire film is not meant to be 'realistic' in any way. IF you go into the film thinking that it would be like any other silent film (or film in general), be warned of a rude awakening. The sets in particular, with the off-kilter angles and obviously unrealistic paint make The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari like a fever dream, something that calls to the subconscious, the unreal, the hallucinatory, the surreal. Expressionism is the perfect term, for we get the ideas that this is a fantasy and fantastical world.
The real genius though is in the script, for the film never lets us know what is real and what isn't. For the longest time, we took for granted that Alan's tale of a mad scientist and his bewitched minion was true, but we then get that shocking twist. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so brilliantly twisted our expectations, our sense of what is true and not true. Even when we get to the end, we still do not know what is the truth and what isn't. Was Francis' strange tale the truth? The ramblings of an insane man? The ramblings of someone warning on the dangers of those in command?
Much has been made about how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may have been prescient on the rise of a totalitarian leader like Hitler, an allegory before the fact of how the leaders, those in authority, are creating a madhouse of murder and mayhem. If people read that into the film, that works. I don't see a direct correlation but I won't dismiss it either.
It a bit difficult to judge performances in a silent film because they require a certain level of unreality that now comes across as wildly exaggerated. However, Krauss and the 'mad doctor' and Veidt as the possessed figure are excellent, bringing the appropriate chills to this bizarre tale. They are both appropriately creepy.
It seems that every year at the Plaza Classic Film Festival I end up watching a silent film. Each year, I find that said silent film is absolutely brilliant (Metropolis, Sunrise). I'm pleased to say that with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, their record remains intact.