By Scott A. Cupp
This is the 172nd in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is hardly an unknown film to this crowd, but it was to me. I know that I saw it, but it must have been in the 70’s and much of that time is lost to my fuzzy memory. And, no, it wasn’t drugs. It’s been a long fun road since then and plenty of memories.
I picked up a nice DVD of the film at least 15 years ago but never got around to watching it. Always too many other, newer things to see. But today, I needed to watch and review something since my move is upcoming and I will be missing some weeks. I had watched a Marvel animated thing called Hulk Vs. which featured the Hulk in fights with Wolverine and Thor. But it was awful and I couldn’t justify writing about it other than to say “don’t bother with it.” Pretty mindless stuff there with passable animation but no real plot.
And, since I have been away from home for a couple of months and my selection of films is limited to DVDs only. (Even though I have some wonderful Blu-Ray films with me, I don’t have a useable Blu-Ray player. I have one, just not a TV to connect it to.)
I looked through the stack of films (about 30 or so) and Caligari called out to me, so here we are.
The film is a short, silent German expressionistic horror film, told primarily in flashbacks. Young Francis (Frederick Feher) is speaking to an old man when a young woman named Jane (Lili Dagover) walks by in a trance. He explains that she is his fiancé and that they have been involved in an odd ordeal.
In the town of Holstenwall, Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowsky) are rivals for Jane’s hand. Alan suggests that they all go to the fair. At the fair, Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus) is setting up a somnambulist show. When he applies for a permit, he is insulted by the town clerk. The clerk is mysteriously murdered that night. When Alan and Francis visit the show, Francis asks the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), how long he will live. He is told that he will die at dawn.
That night Cesare visits Alan and kills him in his bed. Suddenly the town has two violent unsolved murders. Francis fears that it is Caligari and Cesare, so he brings his suspicions to the police. As they are investigating, an old woman is attacked by a man and he is arrested for the three murders. He confesses to the one attempt but says that he hoped his killing would be lumped with the other two.
There is further investigation and Jane is abducted at night by Cesare and a crowd follows the monster. Jane is rescued Cesare escapes, only to die out on his own.
The police were watching Caligari and it is reported that no one left. But when they investigate the cabinet where Cesare is housed, they find a dummy with a wig. Francis investigates a mad house looking for a patient named Caligari and does not find one, but sees that the head of the institution has that name. He finds a ledger which details a mad 11th century mountebank who tried to use a somnambulist to commit murders. The flashback shows the doctor succumbing to the idea of using the sleep walker as an experiment to see if it would commit crimes that he might not otherwise do. But these are delusions in Francis’ mind and he is the insane one.
The main thing you notice in watching this are the sets and images. The sets have few right angles or perpendicular walls. Even the windows are skewed. The images are wonderful and bizarre. The actors are have heavily mascara’d eyes, almost modern Goths before their time. The camera work is frequently less than full scene and often not in a rectangular format. Shots are done is circles and zoom in and out.
It was wonderfully odd and wild and I really enjoyed seeing it for the second time. I had totally forgotten everything since my last likely experience. If you too have not seen it in quite a while, I recommend watching it again. Being silent, you will have to read the film to enjoy it.
Of course, your mileage may vary. For a film 96 years old, it holds up well for me.
Series organizer Todd Mason host Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.