I think The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has the distinction of being, production wise, the oldest film in my entire collection - which spans close to 3000 titles. Released in 1920, it was actually produced a year previously in 1919.
I remember, back in the seventies when I was in my teens and the BBC was still relevant, they used to sometimes run seasons of silent movies. Having read about this title in the first book about horror movies I ever owned (A Pictorial History of the Horror Movie by Denis Gifford, a volume I still treasure to this day) I was keen to watch it.As I recall, that season also afforded me the opportunity to watch the then truncated version of Metropolis for the first time. Several years before Georgio Moroder made a disco video of it, which became the only version available for over a decade. Boy, can you imagine a TV station having the testicular fortitude to broadcast silent movies these days - in prime time??
It’s true to say that the film dropped off my radar for years, until I saw the video to "Living Dead Girl" by Rob Zombie, where Zombie was referencing Caligari heavily, reconstructing many of the film’s set pieces as I remembered them from so long ago with an uncanny accuracy. I was lucky enough to get to interview Rob Zombie a couple of years ago and posed the question of the video to him, as he replied at the time:
"Yeah, we put a lot time in to it. Since obviously there’s no blueprints to follow, we just tried to draw them off the film and they’re pretty accurate. It’s kind of hard to try to judge scale off forced perspective sets in a movie, but they came off pretty close."
In fact, watching that video led me down the path of seeking a copy of the film on DVD, and from a historical perspective, it belongs in my collection, being generally acknowledged as the first real horror film. (But this is an arguable point in view that the Edison company produced a very short version of Frankenstein way back in 1910, starring Charles Ogle as the monster. Theres’ also evidence to suggest that Frankenstein might also be the first horror film ever to suffer at the hands of British censors as the film ran 975 feet in America, but only 967 feet in the UK)
However, back to Dr Caligari and his cabinet, running at a lean 52 minutes, the film is a fast paced story, imaginatively woven with seemingly very sparse resources, as were most films of that era. If a jaded modern audience can overlook the blatant overacting, wild exaggerated gestures and general histrionics, then they’re certainly in for a treat from a simpler time.
The opening card lets us know what we’re letting ourselves in for:
"A tale of the modern reappearance of an 11th century monk involving the strange and mysterious influence of a mountebank monk over a somnambulist"
Okay - a couple of words of explanation. A mountebank is an impostor or a swindler, a somnambulist is a sleepwalker. Again, can you imagine of the sensationalised DVD covers and sound bite synopsis of today’s movies used vocabulary enlarging words like that?
As the film opens, two men are sitting on a bench talking of spirits as a strange woman with more than a passing resemblance to Lily Munster passes in a trance like state. This gives rise to the story, which is Francis (Friedrich Fedher) the younger man’s narrative to the older.
He tells of a time when a travelling fair came to the small town of Holstenwall, and as his tale is told, we the audience can’t help but be disconcerted by the setting. The sets are overly angular, harsh and expressionistic, more than would be typical of the German movement of that time. The backdrops are like the painted backdrops you’d expect to see in a stage production, except that they’re off kilter and show an exaggerated sense of perspective. Imagine a Tim Burton set, but taken to almost ludicrous extremes and you’ll be in the ballpark of what I’m trying to describe.
An old man, calling himself Dr Caligari (Werner Hertzog) seeks a permit to operate his concession at the fair, and is ridiculed as a phoney by the Town Clerk. This is when the strange murders begin to happen as the grouchy Town Clerk meets his end that very night.
Caligari’s side show attraction is a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who has slept for 25 years and is about to wake up and predict the future of whoever asks him a question. Cesare might well have been a surprising looking figure back in the day, but these days he’s basically a typical Emo with lank black hair, heavy eye shadow, and tight black clothing over his skinny, pale frame. He is completely under the control of Caligari. Watching the show are two friends, (Alan Hans Heinz von Twardowski) and Francis, both in love with the same girl Jane (Lil Dagover)
Asked by Alan how long will he live, Cesare’s grim reply is "Your time is short, you die at dawn". The prophecy comes to pass as Alan is murdered right on time. Cesare becomes the prime suspect, as the victim’s friend goes to the authorities claiming "There is something frightful in our midst". (Weren’t people awfully polite and well spoken back then?)
At the scene of an attempted third murder, the culprit is caught and Cesare’s off the hook, but in a move of incredible stupidity, Cesare is sent out to kill Jane, but instead succumbs to her beauty and carries her off along the weird rooftops before dropping her and falling into a ravine. She identifies Cesare as her kidnapper, but Caligari and Cesare have been under Francis’s surveillance the whole time. A closer examination shows that what was presumed to be Cesare in the cabinet is actually a decoy dummy.
Caligari escapes and is revealed as the head of an asylum, where he studies somnambulism and Cesare was an experiment in mind control and suggestion - could a person in that state be made to do something totally out of character? Even the name Caligari is revealed as a pseudonym - Caligari was in reality an eleventh century monk. Caligari is then caught and dragged away in a straitjacket.
This is where the first twist in the tale ending to a movie (as far as I’m aware) is executed. Francis himself, the teller of the story, is an inmate of an asylum and the cast of characters in his tale are all inmates fashioned into his delusion. This explains the weirdness of the sets and backdrops - it’s the way Francis sees things and he’s insane.
The character he depicted as the evil Caligari is his well meaning, kindly attending doctor.
Of course, if this article whets your appetite to check out this creepy classic for yourself, then hit this link to be taken to Amazon where you can make the purchase.
Copyright © 2010 - 2012 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.