In our perusement of culture from Weimar era Germany, in particular its ground breaking films, we finally arrive at one of the most astonishingly visionary achievements in film history, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Directed by Robert Wein, it predates the other giants of film from the era, notably Metropolis, Nostferatu and Der Golem, who aspired to live up its creative high bar. It’s an early high water mark German Expressionism evolved from and whose unbridled creativity it would attempt to emulate.
Why is it so awesome and inspiring and still discussed 90 years later?
For one thing, it’s the first real horror movie. Oh sure, there had been a ghost story or two, but this is the one that all film critics and buffs site as the movie that created the horror genre.
And in hand with that, it also created the twist ending. A great one too, but i don’t want to over spoil it just on the off chance that someone, someday, reads this and actually watches the whole movie for the first time and enjoys it.
What however makes the early film such a masterpiece is the direction. It forwent the use of real scenery and did not try to attempt to capture the real world. Instead it builds it’s own twisted sets, an architecture or odd angles, straight out of a demonic Dr. Seuss or Lovecraftian dream. Nothing is square or straight, the whole world of the film is…. geometrically impossible. Utterly discordant. Nightmarish.
Add to this the blackness, the shadows always hovering around everything. The strange shots and camera placements, the garrish makeup… What astonishes is that when one remembers while viewing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that the entire medium of motion pictures was new, in its virtual childhood, with film technology at a caveman like level and nothing before it to draw on. All the cliches we know now were yet to be conceived much less overdone. And this is one of the most seminal films in existence that in a wild burst of utter creativity spawned the birth of what eventually evolved down to the tropes we know and love today.
Films of this era can be hard to watch in the same way we enjoy movies today. One issue for me with older films is the method of over acting that just drives me nuts and hampers my ability to suspend disbelief and lose myself in the film’s world. But there is an art to experiencing such things. Trying to imagine seeing a medium in it’s infancy, everything untried an untested, with an alternate reality set of rules for telling it’s story. If you simply had a 16mm camera, could you come up with this crazy shit? What would it be like trying to?
Oh yeah, what’s the damned thing about? From Imdb: “Francis, a young man, recalls in his memory the horrible experiences he and his fiancée Jane recently went through. It is the annual fair in Holstenwall. Francis and his friend Alan visit The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an exhibit where the mysterious doctor shows the somnambulist Cesare, and awakens him for some moments from his death-like sleep. When Alan asks Cesare about his future, Cesare answers that he will die before dawn. The next morning Alan is found dead. Francis suspects Cesare of being the murderer, and starts spying on him and Dr. Caligari.”
Naturally, i leave you with the whole movie on YouTube.