Going back to the times when cinema was recorded with no colours or sound, the German film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” by Robert Wiene is a masterpiece that utilizes fully stylised sets with abstract spaces to represent different scenes. It’s considered one of the most influential movies of German expressionism, since many of the film’s unusual characteristics (from the geometric nature of the sets to the actors’ costumes) were decades ahead of their time.
Have you seen this classic? What do you think about how silent-era films depict space? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Original title: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari Year: 1920 Runtime: 71 min. Country: Germany Director: Robert Wiene Writer: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer Soundtrack: Giuseppe Becce Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski
The main narrative is introduced using a frame story in which most of the plot is presented as a flashback, as told by the protagonist, Francis (one of the earliest examples of a frame story in film). Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly companion are sharing stories when a distracted-looking woman, Jane (Lil Dagover), passes by. Francis calls her his betrothed and narrates an interesting tale that he and Jane share. Francis begins his story with himself and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), who are both good-naturedly competing to be married to the lovely Jane. The two friends visit a carnival in their German mountain village of Holstenwall, where they encounter the captivating Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and a near-silent somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whom the doctor keeps asleep in a coffin-like cabinet, controls hypnotically, and is displaying as an attraction. Caligari hawks that Cesare’s continuous sleeping state allows him to know the answer to any question about the future. When Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, Cesare bluntly replies that Alan will die before dawn tomorrow—a prophecy which is fulfilled. Alan’s violent death at the hands of some shadowy figure becomes the most recent in a series of mysterious murders in Holstenwall.
Francis, along with Jane, to whom he is now officially engaged, investigates Caligari and Cesare, which eventually results in Caligari’s order for Cesare to murder Jane. Cesare nearly does so, revealing to Francis the almost certain connection of Cesare and his master Caligari to the recent homicides; however, Cesare refuses to go through with the killing because of Jane’s beauty and he instead carries her out of her house, pursued by the townsfolk. Finally, after a long chase, Cesare releases Jane, falls over from exhaustion, and dies.
The narrative returns to the present moment, with Francis concluding his tale. A twist ending reveals that Francis’ flashback, however, is actually his fantasy: he, Jane and Cesare are all in fact inmates of the insane asylum, and the man he says is Caligari is his asylum doctor, who, after this revelation of the source of his patient’s delusion, says that now he will be able to cure Francis.
Since the license for the movie is of public domain, you can enjoy of this version reconstructed by the Films Archive of Germany, with the original tones the movie was recorded.
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