† H a p p y H a l l o w e e n †
Roger Ebert said of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (org. title Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari): “A case can be made that [it] was the first true horror film”. He claimed that, even though tales of horror had been made into film before, this was the first one to create a distinctive world for its characters to inhabit, and right he was. Released in 1920 with a style based on the artworks of German Expressionism, all of its weird angles and exaggerated backgrounds intact, Dr. Caligari is undeniably an important cinematic milestone, on top of holding up to this day as quite the visual spectacle.
Even as it opens, the film is already a fascinating sight, its opening titles composed of distorted letters in front of abstract, pointy shapes. After said intro has passed, we see a young man perched on a bench next to an older gentleman, whom he invites to listen to a story he shares with a lady he sees walking by (Lil Dagover). The young man is named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and his story dates back to a very special day in the German village of Holstenwall; a day when he was persuaded by his close mate Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) to go visit a local carnival, where he would encounter a dark but captivating figure of shady origins. This would be the day his life changed for the worse.
The figure in question is Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a performer at the carnival who claims to be the keeper of an all-knowing but near-constantly sleeping somnambulist known as Cesare (Conrad Veidt). As Caligari then awakens Cesare, Alan asks the unnerving somnambulist of when he will die. Cesare says he has until dawn. This, as you may have predicted, leads to Alan being murdered at the break of dawn, which leads Francis, who’s a detective, to start looking for the truth behind the murder, and soon also the origins of Caligari. However, the answers he ultimately discovers aren’t exactly the ones he was seeking. Let’s leave it at that.
The film was screened at the university I currently go to, as part of our course on early cinema, and watching it was quite fun. I was admittedly too tired to stay for the optional after-lunch screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but I’m sure that that’s another classic I’ll soon get to finally see.
The film is directed by Robert Wienne. As mentioned, it looks absolutely wonderful all the way through, right down to the stylized title cards. This more than makes up for the fact that there are so many titles, something that would perhaps make other silent films too long or too boring. In this one, the titles are a pretty sight by themselves and only make the film more compelling to view. Even those who stubbornly avoid older cinema, many of whom sadly belong to my generation, might still find some enjoyment in such a uniquely strange piece of cinema. This is a hope, not a certainty.
The story’s not bad either. The film tells a tale of horror that was unusually full of surprises for the time of its release and it might also be the first example of a film where most of it is told in a flashback. Many of these things I didn’t know until after I saw the film, and it only made me understand its place in movie history even more.
The acting, particularly the strong body language of Werner Krauss, makes the film all the more entrancing and fun to look at, but of course, the true defining charm of Dr. Caligari is the way the sets are constructed and the way that they, as well as the actors, are lit. You’ll find few films that are like Dr. Caligari and even if you try to make your own, chances are you still won’t have a film quite like Dr. Caligari.
The version I’ve seen is the digital restoration. The biggest drawback of this version by far is the inexplicable choice of music. I did not mind the occassional Drone of Dread or the spooky piano bits, but there were moments where the new soundtrack wasn’t only obnoxious, but it was being played on jarringly modern-sounding instruments. I don’t know who looked at this film and figured that a score with electric guitars and jazz saxophones was the no-brainer choice for a 1920’s horror film. If you happen across this version of the movie, please try not to let the music stop you from enjoying a great film.
In an age where Annabelle and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is what comes to the mind of youngsters whenever horror is mentioned, it is nice to revisit a classic that knows how it’s done. Here is my rating and a trailer of sorts: