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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I started my exploration of the silent horror films of the 1920's (even if TECHNICALLY, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" isn't a horror film), with the artistic, German expressionist film, "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror".  It is therefore, only fitting that I end my journey of that time with another artistic German expressionist film- "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari".

Alan and Francis visit a carnival in the small German town of Holstenwall, where one of the attractions is Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist.  Caligari claims that is sleeping attraction can answer any question asked of it.  When Alan asks when he'll die, his death is predicted for that night... a prediction that comes true.  As Francis and his betrothed investigate Dr. Caligari, things seem to be more sinister than they first appeared...

The writers of the screenplay for this movie originally met shortly after World War I, and used their own experiences to come up with the plot.  In 1913, while visiting Hamburg, Hans Jonwitz entered a park near Holstenwall, and witnessed a man walk into the bushes... where the body of a woman would be found the next morning.  Carl Mayer brought his experiences with an autocratic, high ranking military psychiatrist to the screen play.  The final inspiration came when the two saw a carnival sideshow called "Man and Machine", where the man made predictions while in a hypnotic state.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" has often been cited as one of THE best horror films from the 1920's, and one of THE most influencial ones ever.  I can not argue this.  Of the movies I have reviews from that period, the only one that compares in my mind is "Nosferatu".

The most noticable aspect is the sets.  They are just wild- weird angles, distorted perspectives, shadows and lights painted onto the floors, flat background.  This gave it a very stage play feel to it, and I feel it would so simple (and cool too) for a small theater group to mount a modern stage production of this movie.  In addition to that, the weird, distorted perception of the world fits in great with the surprise ending.  As much as I enjoy the larger than life sets of my favorite Hammer horror films, I really simply enjoyed the smaller, artistic ones present in this movie.

The acting was great too, in my opinion- very flowing and once again, something a theater group could produce.  The contrast between the slightly more subdued acting in the framing story compared to the manic gestures during the flashback was well done- and once again added to the logic of the surprise ending.  Werner Krauss as the evil Dr. Caligari definately looked like a Doctor I wouldn't want to examine me, and Lil Dagover brought a nice dash of beauty to the movie as Alan's betrothed, Jane.  Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt was a simple performance, but excellent.

As with most silent movies, the camera work was simple- but with sets like the ones seen in this film, they didn't NEED complex camera angles, etc to look interesting.

So, I end my travels through the silent horror films of the 1920's with "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"... and film the sits solidly in "The Good"

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