With a mix of post-WWI creative talent with little hint yet of the coming darkness of WWII, the film might still be considered deeply mature, at least for its early vintage.
A soothing square aspect ratio, what appear to be hand-painted sets, and the expressionist aversion to straight lines and realism make it a feast for the eyes as every scene seems deliberate in its construction. Framing shows the deep expressions characteristics of the overacting of the silent film period, and the geometric shapes and focus on the facial expressions themselves tell much of the story. Shade and darkness frame the faces which show their depravity, as delusion and the propensity for violence form the central theme of this film.
It follows a protagonist who seems to be at the center of the the rampage of a serial killer with some macabre designs. A superficial view of the first five acts are classical in their unfolding, but under the surface expresses one of the earliest “twists” of any film film as it examines the nature of objective reality itself.
The characters’ faces, dress, and displays of emotion are as if out of a madman’s dream, as are the cityscapes, homes, windows and doors, none of which reflect reality.
While the story itself is not particularly deep, as silent films were limited to deep exposition or development through any means other than visual by the tedium of reading description cards, the background story for this film tells more.
The writers, Carl Mayer, an Austrian Jew who fled Germany in 1933, and Hans Janowitz, a German Officer during WWI who returned a pacifist, the two worked together to write the story in what has been described as a critique of mankind’s propensity to be led to violence, and blind acceptance of authority.
Werner Krauss, who plays the mad doctor was a major player in the film and theater industries under the Nazis. Described as a “unashamed anti-Semite,” he found his niche playing countless Jewish stereotypes in racist films.
Conrad Veidt, who plays the doctor’s somnambulist, was also a veteran WWI officer, and was married to a Jewish woman, fleeing Germany in 1933, and like Meyer, went to the UK, and later appeared in Casablanca.
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, who played Alan, the best friend of the protagonist, was homosexual and fled the Nazi’s prior to their takeover too, later also appearing in Casablanca.
The films’ era, interwar Germany, was a turbulent and fraught time, with writers and performers alike being later forced to take sides on life and death issues which would plunge the continent into war once again. This film seems to aim to take on the trivialization and bureaucratization of violence using what little means it had available at such an early time.
Because of its age and time, not only was it limited in what it could accomplish but as one of the earliest films ever made, it has been replicated and built upon endlessly. It is still fascinating and immensely worthwhile to see the fore bearers of modern film during the infancy of the art.
Rating: A more than 7-foot tall screwtop chair.
I must be honest, I missed the first ten-ish minutes of this movie (I went back after and re-watched the beginning later). When I came into the room where Ari was watching I though he might be watching some strange WWI propaganda film. Strange lines and bizarre costumes and facial hair covered the studio wall as the projector exuded this strange expressionist black and white film.
The script for the film was written in the waning days of WWI, by a reluctant military officer named Hans Janowitz, and Carl Mayer who feigned mental illness to avoid service in the largely pointless war. This deep understanding of the depravity of humankind during WWI, and the exceptionally unregulated and cruel mental health institutions of the time, lend themselves to the production of a film that feels like what I would imagine taking a geometry test on too much acid during Halloween would feel like.
The filming was all done in a studio, which allows the filmmakers to totally control the viewers perception. Buildings are slanted, pathways sometimes jut into the sky leading to nowhere, even the forests are sharp and surreal. The appearance of the characters in the film is similarly bizarre. Dr. Caligari’s Mickey Mouse gloves, Cesare’s black ballet-like outfit, long exaggerated facial hair, and heavy doses of makeup, all allow the characters to become absurdist set pieces that add to the feeling that the viewer be losing their sanity along with seemingly everyone in the film. The characters’ wild gesticulations and contorted expressions, common in the silent film era, imposed over a menacing score only add to the feeling of losing control of one’s faculties.
The film’s story uses a ‘Rahmenerzählung’, or ‘frame story’, method. There are two nearly identical scenes at the beginning and the end of the movie where Francis is sitting with an elderly man, who appears to be in a constant state of shock, in the forest. This is the only time where the scenery is arranged in anything approaching reality. Then the film retraces the horrifying events that he and his “fiancé” have been through over the past few days. After this flashback we return to the spot where we started on a bench is the calm forest, having told his story, Francis looks as shell shocked as the troops fighting in ‘the war to end all wars’.
Choosing to frame the story in this manner, sandwiched between the two scenes in the woods, along with what we see in Francis’ story itself, sets up the ending of the movie perfectly. It makes you suspicious of who is telling the truth, who is actually crazy, am I crazy? Yes, it can make the viewer feel a little skeptical of their mental state as well. This is of course enhanced by the music and scenery in the film, but also in the filmmaking techniques used in the production of the film.
The filmmakers used different filters to help with the ambiance as well, using bluish hues to add a bit of darkness or brighter sepia yellows to give a lively atmosphere to the fair. This film also used some very early special effects. While they haven’t aged perfectly, they are still fascinating to watch, and I can only imagine what people over 100 years ago thought when they saw this film.
These film and special effects are combined beautifully with the use of light, shadow, and space throughout the film. The use of violence, some scenes seem quite barbaric for the time and were certainly the inspiration for many future scenes in the industry, help to draw the viewer further into the horror. Even the title cards that look like how I would imagine a 1920s deathcore band would have written their name blended with the transitions between scenes help to keep the audience on the edge of its collective seat.
Finally, the somnambulist Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt in the film, is a very useful device for conveying the writers’ emotion and message. The idea of an average person who has been asleep all of their life being kept in a box only to be pulled out by a powerful outside forces to commit horrible acts for the amusement of the person in control is a pretty strong metaphor for what was happening in many places in the world at that time, and today. A nightmarish, unbroken dream-like state also fits nicely into the theme of dark madness that permeates the film.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a fascinating film and is extremely important in the history of filmmaking. I would strongly encourage everyone to check it out, I will even embed it below so you can stream through the site if you would like!
Rating: 20 sleepwalking ballerinas of death/a slightly too spindly mustache
The full movie, for free (copyright and otherwise):