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The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

A masterpiece of German expressionism, Caligari also reflects the bleak atmosphere of post-war Europe.

It tells the story of a young man called Francis (Friedrich Feher) who visits a travelling fair with his best friend, and encounters the menacing figure of Doctor Caligari, who has in his care a wraith-like somnambulist named Cesare (a young Conrad Veidt), whom Caligari claims is able to see the future. He awakes Cesare from his hypnotic trance, and the sleepwalker predicts, with terrified eyes, that Francis’s best friend will be murdered that night. The prediction is accurate, and Francis must race against time to expose the villainous Caligari and bring him to justice in order to save his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover), the next intended victim.

What impressed me most on my first viewing was the way that the film is shot. It looks like a nightmare. Expressionism permeates the whole thing. Sharp angles jutting into space, menacing shadows, the stark contrast between light and dark, characters made vulnerable by cavernous rooms. The city is presented as a bizarre puzzle box, and it exaggerates both the confusion and fear experienced by the protagonist, and the mystery surrounding Caligari himself.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is also responsible for me developing a lasting crush on Conrad Veidt through his portrayal of Cesare. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I really don’t. I mean, Cesare has a look about him that’s seen on just about every emo kid out there. Oh, and he’s also a mentally disturbed somnambulist who commits terrible murders while in hypnotic trances. Seriously though, what is wrong with me? Nevertheless, Cesare is added to the list of creepy men I crush on, along with:

  • Hannibal Lecter
  • Norman Bates
  • Jack Skellington
  • Captain Hook (fantasy husband #1)
  • Vincent Price (fantasy husband #2)
  • Any character played by Mark Sheppard
  • Lucius Malfoy
  • Any character played by Crispin Glover (My crush on him has gone to such embarrassing extremes that back when I was 16 I purchased the awful Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle on VHS just for Crispin. I cried when his character was killed, and I invented this whole head canon where he wasn’t really dead in spite of being shish-kebabed and falling off the top of a building, and he and Dylan got together and had a creepy sado-masochistic relationship).

Okay, embarrassing revelations over, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Caligari himself is also very creepy as the mad scientist who chases his obsession at all costs. Werner Krauss’s beetling eyebrows and manic gaze make him seem like some kind of monstrous fairytale villain. And there’s just something inherently creepy about films set in mental hospitals or carnivals. This film utilises both. There’s also a twist ending, which I won’t spoil for anyone. It actually took me by surprise, and didn’t feel like a let-down the way that so many surprise endings do nowadays.

I think it’s a shame that so many people don’t give silent cinema a chance. I agree that it’s a medium that takes some getting used to. The intertitles can prevent you from being fully immersed in the story, and most of the acting is necessarily exaggerated. I feel like they have to be seen as works of art. And there’s no denying that, especially in the horror genre I feel, silent films introduced so many of the themes and traditions present in cinema today. Think of Count Orlock’s looming shadow in Nosferatu, or the jump-scare provided by the Phantom’s unveiling in The Phantom of the Opera. I love Caligari as a work of art, and as a pioneer of horror cinema. I just find it beautiful to look at. And while Veidt has been accused of being hammy, I think he’s a fine actor. He projects a combination of menace and pathos as Cesare, who is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, made terrible against his will. Also, check out The Man Who Laughs for more Veidt, who has the most expressive eyes I’ve ever seen, conveying exactly what his character is feeling despite the gruesome smile carved into his face. I’m a huge Conrad Veidt supporter. And not just because I fancy him.

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