Silent Film Review: 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In 2007, digging through the Danbury Public Library to watch whatever they had on DVD, I found what, at the time, was the most exotic thing I had ever seen discussed: 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German expressionist film that has gone on to be one of the most discussed films of its day. Is it worth the attention? Or just another movie that was lucky enough to be remembered beyond its time?

Dr. Caligari is a film that is shockingly nonsensical at first glimpse. In fact, it is one of the few instances of “it’s all the narrator’s interpretation” that I feel is done well. The entire film exists within a framing device: that of Francis explaining to an audience surrogate how he interprets events to be taking place. There exists some liberty of interpretation here, but when I get to that point I’ll explain why I feel that my initial understanding of the film was less accurate than my current one.

Once Francis begins telling the story, we move into an expressionist flashback. For those unfamiliar with it, expressionism is a style of art in which the contents are distorted in order to represent the emotions with which they’re being perceived. In early film, this largely translates to a manner of setting a mood in a media where, at the time, neither color, budget nor sound existed in order to set it with anything other than the acting and the set. Non-Euclidean Geometry is a hallmark of expressionism, and it’s rare enough in live action film that it always stands out when it appears.

The nonsense that I referred to comes in the form of Cesare, the so-called “somnambulist”, or sleep-walker. In the film, he is presented as 1) having slept for 25 years, 2) telling prophecies of the future, 3) awakening often enough to be fed during the day and 4) acting and being conscious in the evening.

There are several factors involved in the explanation of this. It couldbe that the filmmakers have no idea what a somnambulist is, or that the average viewer doesn’t. What the film seems to indicate, though, is a mixture of two things: one, that our storyteller Francis doesn’t quite understand what he’s talking about, and two, that audiences in 1920 were clearly aware that a traveling carnival freakshow, of which Cesare is an exhibit, is entirely built on lying to and impressing the most gullible or curious among the common masses. In other words, the audience isn’t intended to believe any of those claims, but instead to laugh at the characters who believe them.

Whichever of these facts is true, the plot follows along a simpler course. When Francis’s friend Alan asks for a prophecy from Cesare on a lark, Cesare predicts that he will be dead by morning. That night, he is murdered by a mysterious assailant, as is another. As filler (or perhaps a red herring) a criminal attempts to murder an old lady (no motive is given, and honestly that might be a good thing in context, as it keeps the plot from getting bogged down on irrelevancies), but eventually confesses. There’s also a romance sub-plot, but as the film pays it little mind and little of that worthwhile, I’ll pay it the same.

Upon investigating, the man who controls Cesare is found to have fled, and left behind a myth about an 11th century man named Dr. Caligari who hypnotized a somnambulist into doing his bidding, including murder, and a journal documenting his attempts to do the same. Francis and the police then discover that the director of the mental ward is in fact the man he is looking for, at which point he is seemingly taken prisoner.

The silent era effects this film in more ways than convincing Director Robert Wiene to use an unorthodox method of set design. Cinematographic techniques of the era weren’t very advanced in the lighting department – at least, not enough for the cameras and film of the time – resulting in often dark and undetailed frames. In addition, the lack of sound and the need to keep dialogue to a minimum keeps the film – especially regarding the investigation portion of it – much shorter than it would be nowadays. This helps the pacing, but it also hurts in making the reveal and subsequent resolution seem rushed and potentially confusing.

The flashback ends, and the director is once again seen descending the stairs. Francis accuses him of being the killer, at which point Francis is restrained. The director speaks about curing the man’s delusion about his being Dr. Caligari, and Francis is led away.

It was at this point in my first viewing that I was sure the killer had won, and taken an innocent man in his place. However, one aspect of this scene (besides the inconsistencies I hinted at earlier) suggests another interpretation is more accurate): the director is not only better groomed, but also displays entirely different body language than he did at any point in the flashback. Is it possible, then, that it is Francis who is insane, and the entire story the delusion of his fevered mind? I recommend that you watch the movie and comment with your own opinion. It’s open enough.

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