The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari
"Meticulously planned and executed, it pioneers a number of important cinematic techniques."

Although preceded by some truly disturbing observational films and adaptations like Frankenstein, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari was the first horror film created for the cinema, and one of cinema's first true classics. Meticulously planned and executed, it pioneers a number of important cinematic techniques and is, throughout, crafted to take full advantage of the complexity of the medium. In all the years since, no other work has matched its striking imagery, with Expressionist sets designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig marking it out as a conscious exercise in style, giving cinema an important confidence boost by showing that it could aspire to produce high art and not just capture life or recycle theatre. It also boasts a narrative complexity previously unseen onscreen.

Plunged quickly into a story told by the earnest young Francis (Friedrich Fehér), we see his first meeting with sideshow hypnotist Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the sinister somnabulist he keeps in his cabinet (Conrad Veidt). When Francis and his beloved Jane (Lil Dagover) come to suspect the pair's involvement in a string of murders, little do they realise that their own lives could be in danger. But the truth is more complicated still, and this visually sophisticated film presents a puzzle viewers will not easily solve.

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Although the vivid make-up and elegant caption cards are familiar enough to fans of silent film, other aspects of this tale will shatter expectations, and its dream-like approach, combined with the somnambulism and hypnotism motifs, mean it continues to have a disconcerting effect even on sophisticated modern viewers. The best way to see it is with a live soundtrack, of course, but there have now been several tracks composed to go with it, reflecting both the style of the period and developing audience tastes, which are now available in recorded versions.

In historical context, the film can be seen as commenting on German reactions to the austerity forced upon the country by the Treaty of Versailles, and to the search for order in a chaotic world, with too many people sleepwalking toward something that could be worse. The charismatic Caligari is a natural leader dominating the fairground landscape and any other context in which he finds himself - but in trying to escape his clutches, Francis and Jane must confront a difficult truth about themselves.

The only serious rival to Metropolis for best film of the Twenties, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari remains a must see.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2014
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A silent classic exploring madness, hypnotism and the boundaries of reality.
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Director: Robert Wiene

Writer: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz

Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Hans Lanser-Rudolf, Henri Peters-Arnolds, Ludwig Rex, Elsa Wagner

Year: 1920

Runtime: 78 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: Germany


BIFF 2014

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