Watching Old Movies: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

1920

What happened this year?

A buncha stuff! Prohibition began, the first US General Election took place in which women could actually vote (Warren G. Harding won, fyi), the ACLU was founded, Joan of Arc was canonised as a saint and DeForest Kelley was born! Aka Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy!

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(Also so was Frederico Fellini, Yul Brinner, Toshiro Mifune, Maureen O’Hara, Mickey Rooney and Pope John Paul II, so… good year?)

Oh, and in incredibly minor news, the German Workers Party decided to change its name based on reforms pushed forward by one of its members. But I’m sure we’ll never hear of this ‘National Socialist German Worker’s Party’ ever again, right?

 

Of course, in less foreboding German news, director Robert Wiene got together with writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer to release this little gem of expressionist cinema…

 

 

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

 

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Plot: At the annual fair at Holstenwall, a series of mysterious and brutal murders begin to take place. At the same time, the mysterious and sinister Dr Caligari shows off his exhibit, a somnambulist (sleepwalker) named Cesare. Could the two events possibly be related? Well, no fucking duh. This was the 1920’s. Good narrative misdirection hadn’t been invented yet. Still, as protagonist Francis searches for the truth behind both the murders and the mysterious Dr Caligari, the audience is left to wonder who is truly the insane one here?

Trivia: Writer Hans Janowitz claims to have gotten the idea for the film when he was at a carnival one day. He saw a strange man lurking in the shadows. The next day he heard that a girl was brutally murdered there. He went to the funeral and saw the same man lurking around. He had no proof that the strange man was the murderer, but he fleshed the whole idea out into his film. (Fun!!!)

Helped Inspire: Dracula, The Night of the Hunter, Citizen Kane (apparently) and almost everything Tim Burton‘s ever done.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Boy, who’d have thought that the first old movie I saw on this list of old movies would be so… old, eh?

Yeah, I may have jumped into the deep end a little bit here, because the Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a film that… kinda shows its age? Not just in the fact that it’s a silent, black and white movie, but in everything from its simple camerawork and cliche plot (even though it probably invented most of said cliches in the first place) to its numerous cheap set backgrounds that look more appropriate for a school play than a proper movie.

Well, okay, maybe that’s a little harsh on the last one. The production design of Dr Caligari has been one of its most iconic elements and, while I thought it looked ridiculous at the beginning of the movie, as the film went on the set designs honestly kinda grew on me? Are they weird and somewhat cheap looking? Maybe. But they’re almost endearingly so and in a way that helped give the film its own unique flavour.

Honestly, if I had to give real praise to any technical aspect, however, it’d definitely be the lighting. The use of shadows and low light really give the film a dark and haunting atmosphere that matches the creepy psychological tone of the film perfectly. And while a significant chunk of that shadowy lighting is probably down to the actual limits of filmmaking at the time, I still have to give it credit for the achieved effect. The make-up is pretty ghoulish as well, in a very good way. You can definitely see why Tim Burton chose to base his style on this movie.

The other aspect I’d give some praise to is the acting. Sure, it’s very much silent film acting, with a lot of exaggerated motions and expressions, but the actors do a genuinely good job with the parts they were given. (Mostly. The guy who played the doomed best friend made me somewhat giggle at the wrong times.) Special credit goes to Conrad Veidt (the guy whose look (in another movie) inspired the Joker!) as Cesare, the somnabulist, who in spite of having surprisingly little screentime manages to steal the show almost every time he shows up as one of the most genuinely creepy characters in the whole mess.

Still, I’m somewhat torn as to how to rate this. On the one hand, it really did show its age in my eyes, both in terms of filmmaking and all the elements of story/design/whatever that I’ve already seen done elsewhere and usually done better (even if said movies were most likely inspired by this). But on the other hand, having had a bit of time to digest and think on the movie, there is something… strangely compelling about it. Especially towards the end, I found myself being drawn more and more towards it and its haunting atmosphere. It’s not exactly something I personally found to be great, but I am definitely glad I watched it and can entirely get why others might love it so much. That said, on my own personal experiences, I still can’t bring myself to give it any better than a B-. Sorry.

 

 

Well, now that that’s done, maybe I should relax with something more lighthearted? A comedy, perhaps, starring one of the great slapstick comedians of the age?

 

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Wait, hang on, I’ve already seen that one.

 

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Thaaaaaat’s better.

 

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