Film Greats: Robert Weine’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1919)

Edwin Pereyra

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This series leaps 66 years back from its last choice film, My Life As A Dog, to comment on one of cinema’s most influential films. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a fusion of German expressionism with one of the most conventional methods of film storytelling - cause and effect.
While moving pictures may have been around for almost 25 years when this film was made, it was still quite an ambitious and bold undertaking back in 1919. From the point of view of its narrator Francis (Friedrich Feher), he tells the story of Dr. Caligari who arrives at a local town fair with a cabinet. In it is a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Dr. Caligari professes to have the power of awakening Cesare from his deep sleep of 23 years and be able to predict the future. An arrogant young man (Alan) challenges the somnambulist and asked him how long he will live, to which Cesare replies “Until dawn”. That night the young man is murdered. Alan’s friend suspects that the murder was the work of Caligari who hypnotized Cesare into committing such an act.
This film is probably the very first one to use a major plot twist in the horror genre. It is visually stimulating especially in its set design with the jagged buildings, slanted roads, geometrically convoluted houses and other distorted set pieces. In addition, the stylized performances, exaggerated makeup, unusual costumes and dramatic lighting with heavy shadows were prominent in the film. All of these were effectively used to differentiate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality and from what is considered normal vs. delusional.
For a silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a rather complex story. The film could benefit from the use of additional dialogue cards in telling its story to be less confusing and for a more horrifying effect. I have to admit that in my first viewing of this film, I had no knowledge at all about its content and style, which caught me a little off guard. In that regard and having viewed it again, I see this film more as a representation of German expressionist cinema first then horror film second. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is a triumphant piece of filmmaking in the silent film era.
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Film Greats – A continuing quick look at motion pictures that, in one way or another, have been called “great films” by some. Other Films in this Series: Sergei Eisenstein’s http://www.hometheaterforum.com/uub/Forum9/HTML/007237.html
 

Brook K

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Yes, Weine's films was one of the earliest examples of Expressionist cinema and remains one of the greatest examples of using artifice to completely subvert reality.
Other films to explore include F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and Faust
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[Edited last by Brook K on August 22, 2001 at 01:04 AM]
 

Grant B

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I liked this film a lot and was impressed on how differenet it was was from other films.
The only silient film I have ever seen that holds up to anything ever put out , in terms of entertainment and story line is Keaton's, The General.
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Hendrik

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"...The only silient film I have ever seen that holds up to anything ever put out , in terms of entertainment and story line is Keaton's, The General."
...what about Erich von Stroheim's films? ...or Fred Niblo's 1925 Ben Hur? ... Murnau's The Last Laugh and Sunrise? ... Victor Sjöström's The Wind? ... King Vidor's The Big Parade? ... Chaplin's The Gold Rush? ... Frank Capra's The Matinee Idol? ... to name just a very few...
. . .
. . .
 

Troy_S

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One thing that struck me with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and again with Aguirre: The Wrath of God which I screened with the commentary last night) is how incidental spur of the moment necessity can give birth to great cinema.
For example The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was shot in Post Great War Germany during which electricity usage was strictly limited. The result was the painting of almost all shadows rather then generating them naturally (with electric lights). In Aguirre Werner Herzog admits to not story boarding a single scene yet a definite theme develops in his camera's insistence on holding frame on images of motherhood. (Mother rat carrying her babies to safety, Mother pig feeding her litter, The character who gives the stylized dialogue about the "Mother" and "two by two", and more, look for them.) But my point is that none of that was planned (like the painted shadows in Caligari they just sort of presented themselves.
I've seen Caligari many times yet whenever I hear it mentioned I'm always reminded of the futility to plan. When genius strikes it strikes out of the blue.
[Edited last by Troy_S on August 22, 2001 at 07:08 PM]
[Edited last by Troy_S on August 22, 2001 at 07:12 PM]
[Edited last by Troy_S on August 22, 2001 at 07:13 PM]
[Edited last by Troy_S on August 22, 2001 at 07:13 PM]
 

Troy_S

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I need to learn how to spell check so I don't have to re-edit my posts a hundred times
 

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