Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari | 1920 | Film Review

Fig.1 Movie poster for the film

This is a review of the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene. Watching the piece, it was quite clear to see how he used the black and white tonal values to his advantage, adding shadows and curved, eccentric scenery helped to draw the viewers eyes ever deeper into the scene playing before them.

Roger Ebert also picked up on the usage of Wiene's elaborate scenery stating in his review
The actors inhabit a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives. These radical distortions immediately set the film apart from all earlier ones, which were based on the camera's innate tendency to record reality. 
(Roger Ebert - 3 June 2009)
Ebert is certainly right on saying how the scenery sets this film apart from its earlier counterparts. The obscured view and look of the scenery was something rarely seen before the films debut and has helped dramatically with horrors that we see today. It has caused massive influence through the consequential years with its dramatic use of tone; either with shadowing, often leaving parts of the set completely shrouded in darkness, to give a sense of mystery and fear. It can also be argued that Wiene used German expressionism to darken the air around the scenes and also pushed it further with his use of usually thick makeup on characters for added effect. This is also backed up by the fact that Germany was going through a very morose period in time due to the recent conclusion of World War 1 in 1918.

This oddly intriguing film is dark and mysterious and full of hidden gems and leaves the viewer wondering just what happened in that small town of Holstenwall. Wiene opened the film with the yet unnamed Francis talking to a man besides him about the spirits all around before his 'fiancĂ©' makes her first appearance. You may argue that this garden is one of our few glimpses of reality before the film takes hold because before long, Francis transports us into a distorted world. Ebert picked up on this and it definitely drags the eye across the set and scene in wonder at the beautifully playful architecture. It is possible to perceive this set as a distortion of the memories that we as an audience are trapped within the darkest corners of Francis' mind or perhaps Wiene is telling us something more? Is all as it seems?

Fig.2 Dr Caligari and Ceasre with Jane looking on

Our main character appear to be Francis and his once close friend Alan, who both fall for the beautiful Jane before Dr. Caligari visits the town and applies for a spot in the fair so he can show of his amazing Somnambulist.

Due to the films age, the speech is lost to us unless we can read the tantalizingly twisted words displayed to us but so much more is conveyed with the theatrical acting and emotions. The way they act and hold themselves seems almost comical to the viewer in this day and age but certainly helps twist the story even more. One character that so much is based around and seen is Cesare, the Somnambulist, with eyes darkened by makeup, black clothing and lack of words that come forth from his mouth. Just the way he stands conveys that he may not be so innocent as he first seems. Even Dr Caligari himself is covered in this over the top theatrical makeup, disfiguring the shaping of the face, head and hands. Maybe this was some cleaver foreshadowing by Wiene.

Towards the end of Francis's re-telling of the horrors of Dr. Caligari, as an audience, we could argue that we are brought back to reality or at least out of his distorted reality before seeing his beloved Jane, whom believes she is a Queen, Cesare, a quiet character in the corner and the 'real Dr. Caligari'. As we find out, the place he seems to be held within is a mental asylum allowing us to question the sanity and credibility of Francis's retelling. Was it all true? Which parts are reality and which is faux?

In conclusion, we can owe a lot to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for the influence it has made and helped shape horror into what we ourselves see on our screens today. It is definitely a great example of German expressionism and it definitely left us, the audience, questioning the film and wanting more...



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