Friday, 29 March 2013

Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Despite this being near the top of my Things To Watch list, it took me quite some time to get around to actually seeing it, likely due to a slightly subconscious view of silent films as somewhat “difficult”. (There never seems to be a perfect time to just kick back and watch a revered silent film of historical importance, featuring surrealist set design and lashings of German Expressionism.) In any case, the moment did arrive, during an altruistic mission to ease another's illness with multiple DVDs and a selection of fine snacks, and I'm heartily glad I got round to viewing it in the end.

As the first acknowledged horror film, Caligari sets the bar high. The plot cracks along at a fast pace, and at only around 70 minutes' running time (less than even a Police Academy film), there's not a great deal of time to fit all the action in. The plot centres around a fair in the town of Holstenwall, at which Dr. Caligari exhibits (after experiencing some clerical difficulties at the Town Hall) his somnambulist, Cesare. The somnambulist awakens on command, and utters a prophecy of death to one of the audience. When the audience member is found dead the next day, suspicion falls upon Caligari, and the investigation takes a distinctly uncanny turn.

The genius of Caligari lies not with the plot, but with the atmosphere conjured by the scenes presented to the audience. Much has been written about the incredible set design – and in a far more eloquent and knowledgeable way than I am able. I will say, however, that the peculiar asymmetric sets add to the feeling that the story being told is not rooted in real life, and is more akin to a fable – something deeply metaphorical and of universal importance. Here is also perhaps the first instance in film of the sympathetic monster – Cesare does not willingly murder, but does so under the influence of his master. He is a tragic creation in the vein of Frankenstein's monster, and Conrad Veidt manages to inspire sympathy simply through the act of opening his eyes – the pained expression he displays shows in a few brief seconds both his character's reluctance to be a pawn, and also his helplessness and inability to resist.

Surprisingly for a film made in 1920, there are many elements of the film and its marketing that are thought of as distinctly modern. There is a twist at the end (which I must admit to having not foreseen), an element that seems to be almost mandatory for recent creators of horror films. There was also, apparently, a viral advertising campaign when the film was released – a key phrase from the film: “Du musst Caligari werden!” appeared on posters around Berlin with no further explanation given. So, it seems all those Blair Witch shenanigans were pre-dated by some ninety years.

In conclusion, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is mesmerising, haunting and a must-see for anyone with a love for any aspect of the fantastic genre that we call horror.

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