Cinema of Silence
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)

The 1919 silent German expressionistic film directed by Robert Wiene.

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The emotionally inanimate sleepwalker.

  • Mar 1, 2012
**** out of ****

I'm not one to judge a film solely for its place in history, or its influence on the many motion pictures that may have followed. Quality, above all, certainly means a lot to me; and it should. One should critique, or appreciate, a film based on both personal taste and the overall observation of how good, how bad, or how "meh" a movie is. I thought it appropriate to say this now, as I review "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", because it's films like this one which are often (unfairly) bombarded with harsh criticism from the beloved audience members of the modern age. It's a horror film released in 1920, so there's no blood, gore, sex, violence, or profanity; and the horror fanatics of today might not be able to fathom that. But I'm not here to offer a critique of our times and how unlucky I feel to be a part of them; I am here to tell you why I think the film is deserving of its landmark status.

In my opinion, one of the most frightening things on earth would be the inability to control our bodily functions; our bones, our movements, what we say, and everything else beyond. The story of the film deals with this theme, this fear; in the form of a rather unfortunate fellow named Cesare, who lives in a cabinet, awakened only by his master by the name of Caligari, who has enslaved his mind and body. Cesare is what one would call a somnambulist; and Caligari advertises his tragic "gift" as a carnival attraction. Caligari comes into town a stranger; but leaves behind him a legend. You'll find out what I mean in just a bit.

Most of the story is told in a flashback; that of a man who appears in the beginning - and in the end - of the film, where he looks back on his experiences and encounters with the Doctor and his psychological slave. We see a woman, who he claims to be his fiancé, wandering about the premises where he and a much older man sit, under a great old tree, and talk of the matters at hand. By the end of the film, much has been revealed, with the aid of a fantastic and unpredictable twist ending that most people - not even the movie-goers of today - will not see coming. It's the rare movie twist where nothing is spelled out for us beforehand. There are red herrings, and perhaps there are even minor clues; but they are mostly irrelevant, and besides, they go fairly unnoticed.

Coming back to the flashback segment of the story (which is most of the movie, to be completely honest); Caligari is not often seen at night. This is mysterious, given that a series of brutal murders (mostly stabbings and the like) has erupted, seemingly out of nowhere. Since I wouldn't consider it much of a spoiler to say so; I'll just come out and say it. Caligari is technically the person responsible for the murders; although his ability to take over the mind and body of Cesare allows him to force the poor, inanimate man to spring to life and commit the deadly deeds that come from the highly disturbed and perverse man's darkest dreams. At one moment, Cesare seems to regain his consciousness when he is about to murder a woman; although he is captivated by her beauty, and refuses to carry out the action. Such scenes, and such realizations in regards to the overall situation, give the film an extra layer of sadness and resonance.

The look of the film is interesting, to say the least. Done almost entirely in a Mise en scène visual style; the film often feels more like a play than like a movie. Perhaps this is because the Mise en scène originates from theatrical productions; although it's since been carried into the world of cinema, and one could say that the profilic paper-cut-out architecture and distinctive lighting of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" have popularized the style for future reference. Modern manipulators of the style are few; although those who do choose to take it upon themselves to make use of it are rewarded with footage of great and raw beauty. The simplicity of the production design, combined with the sinister lighting and the blue/yellow color schemes makes for a unique, almost dream-like viewing experience. The film is like an onslaught of nightmarish imagery and butt-naked surrealism; it's simple, but it's undeniably effective, and it really sticks with you.

It isn't often that I resonate with a horror movie as much as I did with this one; but this must indicate that it possesses something special, something seemingly otherworldly in the motion picture business of today, and it does. "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" manages to emotionally engage the audience with images that are striking and characters that are - at least by the end - somewhat sympathetic. It's a film that deals heavily with mental illness, enslavement, and a general loss of free will. Once the premise and the film's central ideas are taken into thought; I found it both touching and genuinely scary. Simply put, it's a treat.

One of the few horror classics of the 1920's - going into the 30's and 40's - that was not based on some famous (or infamous) horror novel, this Gothic expressionist import from Germany proved that when trying to make the audience feel - and truly connect with - the atmosphere that has been built up from the start, silence is absolutely golden. I suppose it wouldn't be incredibly difficult to imagine somebody remaking the film in hopes of giving it just a little more, I don't know, depth. To me, that would be taking away the horror and most of the emotions that I felt when I watched this movie, but I don't know; it could add more layers than there ever were before. It could really go either way. "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" succeeds because it does not characterize its characters (and yet they are so memorable), or over-complicate its murder mystery plot. It's intriguing and consistently arresting; with plenty of assistance from the little things in-between. To me, those are all qualities of a great horror flick; although to others, it might mean something different all-together. If you want a creepy, atmospheric horror film rather than one drenched in tasteless bloodshed; all I can say is that this might just be the film for you.

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About the reviewer
Ryan J. Marshall ()
Ranked #2
It's very likely that the only kind of reviews I'll ever post here are movie reviews. I'm very passionate about film; and at this point, it pretty much controls my life. Film gives us a purpose; … more
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About this movie



Director: Robert Wiene
Genre: Horror
Release Date: 1919
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Screen Writer: Carl Meyer, Hans Janowitz
DVD Release Date: October 15, 1997
Runtime: 68 minutes
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