By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –
With some early silent films, it’s too jittery, too grainy, too old and staged and hokey-looking to really get a read on the image, let alone understand and be moved by the story. Then there’s the heavies, your Passion of Joan of Arcs and Sherlock Jr.s, where they seem to exist fully formed, easily as sharp and nuanced as anything the combined processing power of Pixar could throw at them. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari occupies a kind of middle ground. It’s a film of arresting imagery and sometimes exhilarating rhythm. But it also cares not a wit for audience comfort, planting its freak flag in the midst of a labyrinth of twisting, angular passageways and guyliner. It’s a movie that takes an active glee zig-zagging into a strangeness beyond pretty much anything that would come before or after it. And that, really, is its point.
Dr. C is as much an art exhibition as it is a film, and as much a mischievous, surrealist attitude as it is an art exhibition. If you are not listening to a German DJ live-mix the highly influential 1920 silent masterpiece, then you need to be putting out cigarette butts in one of those pinky-sized espresso glasses. One of the imdb keywords – IMDB, for godsake – is somnambulist.
If the above sounds impenetrable or intense, the film is and is not. For all of Dr. Caligari’s chops as a grandfather of German expressionism, and that movement’s influence in the eventual Hollywood stylistic status quo, there’s a giddy, almost puerile sense of play going on. Just take the plot: an insane doctor comes to idyllic German town – with a murderous sleepwalker he alone controls, obviously – then aforementioned pawn of evil/liner brush enthusiast kills people, sees a girl, becomes fixated on girl, kidnaps girl, girl’s fiancee rescues her, literally turns a corner, and finds himself in an insane asylum… Robert Weine, Hans Janowitz, and Carl Mayer are all chuckling into their coffee. Endlessly enthusiastic intertitles, like “The somnambulist’s prophecy..?!” abound, and, eventually come to haunt the screen itself.
Caligari is all style: staged, operatic, exuberant, and engrossing. Its landscape is one of madness, its subjects delusion and dreams. On the one hand, it’s something of a cinematic workout, its sets and visual design stretching our sense of space. The film makes us uncomfortably aware of its unreality, where both comedy and horror are magnified. Which is why, on the other hand, its atmosphere – brought out through lighting and especially shadows, through Weine’s harsh camera placements and unflinching cuts – is all too understandable. Caligari will get you in the end. In so many ways and through so many of its filmic heirs, it already has.
It’s true that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari hasn’t necessarily aged well. The pacing is jumpy and the acting is about as naturalistic as the flats, which cover the film-world like the padding of a cell in a loony bin. But the film’s punch isn’t in its horror subject or story, per se. It’s in the at times hilarious, at times bewildering, and always original design. The film’s atmosphere is still as fresh and as dark as a moonless night.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone talks about/is actually murdered.
Take a Drink: whenever someone decides to go to the carnival.
Take a Drink: whenever someone utilizes a piece of furniture that doesn’t look like it was built for normal-sized humans.
Do a Shot: when Caesar speaks.
Finish Your Drink: when the crazies come out.