In which we meet a somnambulist, an expressionist master director and a rising body count, all from a century ago.
I find it hard to get my head round the idea that we were watching movies a hundred years ago. They’re now officially antiques. Of course, it was a different experience then and not just the black white photography or lack of sound.
Cinema’s language has changed over the last century, we understand it subliminally from cues that we’ve witnessed before – soundtracks, framing, angles and colours to name just a few. Looking back at a film made before any of this had developed should be an interesting history lesson.
Before I go any further, I discuss the full plot of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari soon. If you have always wanted to see the film, I recommend doing it unspoiled and coming back here later.
Despite 100 years passing, it doesn’t take long to settle into The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yes, at first the flickering light, darkened edges of the frame and pauses to read dialogue are distracting but a few minutes in and I’d accepted them like subtitles today.
Once you’re beyond the novelty, the design of the film remains icon and striking. Famously abstract and stylised by its director Robert Weine, it’s the standard which all Expressionist movies are judged against. The painted indoor are so well realised that they’re instantly accepted as the odd reality of the world we’re watching.
Within that world, we begin with a framing scene. Francis, our lead, explains to another man that he’s suffered and ordeal and that the dazed woman walking around them is his fiancé, Jane. His story returns to the days where he and a friend Alan were both competing for Jane. One day the three visit a fair and meet the mysterious Dr Caligari, whose spectacle is a sleepwalker called Cesare he can control and who answers questions from the audience.
For some reason Alan asks how long he has left to live, and Cesare responds with “Until dawn”. Ask a daft question as they say… That night Alan is stabbed to death in his bed. A grief-stricken Francis takes it upon himself to investigate. Before long we see Cesare sent to murder Jane but decide to kidnap her instead, leading to a chase across the town and out into the hills.
Now on the trail of Caligari, Francis tails him to an asylum where he learns the Doctor is the director and had experimented on Cesare who arrived as a patient. Reading his records, Francis and the asylum staff capture the volatile Caligari and he ends as a patient.
If you are going to watch the The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, now’s your last chance to see it unspoiled…
In a twist ending, we return to the opening scene and learn that Francis is in fact an inmate of the asylum, with Jane and Cesare fellow patients. The visibly saner, but still a little unbalanced in the eyes, Dr Caligari announces he now knows how to cure Francis.
I said at the outset that this film doesn’t feel its age for long and that’s a huge testament to both the visual style and tight horror story it tells. The sets, each painted with sharp angles and beams of light, are iconic to any film student but also recognisable far beyond the confines of movie fans into pop culture and art history. They create a tension, as if the whole town is dangerous, filled with razor edges and spikes waiting to puncture the characters at any time. The design also adds to the fairy tale story-within-a-story aspect, the simple blocked designs and bold shapes perhaps being Francis’ memory of the small town.
With the addition of time, Caligari now takes on an extra dimension as we re-watch from the far future of today. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “you feel as if you’re watching an old record of an old story, which includes within itself an even older one”.
The story is fast-paced with short scenes sewn together with little breathing space once the action begins. The deaths are mesmerising as we’re drawn to watch Caligari’s spree of murders continue, even knowing that Francis and Jane survive. With the use of Cesar as the killer and the illusion around him, it’s not clear cut that the Dr will be revealed the true villain until Cesare makes the choice not to kill Jane.
Many consider The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to deal with themes of authority – the slavish devotion of Cesare the sleepwalker and the unquestioned power Caligari wields as the director of an asylum being the clearest examples of this. In that reading, there’s little hope in the film. Our three sympathetic characters (Francis, Jane and latterly Cesare) end trapped in a place that regards them as insane, with the villain of the story in total control of their lives.
It’s a chilling end to a genuine horror story, one that disturbs more that shocks and is the better for it. A century on from its release and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari remains a film that entertains and should be seen.
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