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
Runtime: 71 min.
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.
In the meantime, Francis goes to the local insane asylum to ask if there has ever been a patient there by the name of Caligari, only to be shocked to discover that Caligari is the asylum’s director. With the help of some of Caligari’s oblivious colleagues at the asylum, Francis discovers through old records that the man known as “Dr. Caligari” is obsessed with the story of a mythical monk called Caligari, who, in 1093, visited towns in northern Italy and similarly used a somnambulist under his control to kill people. Dr. Caligari, insanely driven to see if such a situation could actually occur, deemed himself “Caligari” and has since successfully carried out his string of proxy murders. Francis and the asylum’s other doctors send the authorities to Caligari’s office, where Caligari reveals his lunacy only when told that his beloved slave Cesare has died; Caligari is then imprisoned in his own asylum.
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.
Previously posted on this section…
- The Belly of an Architect
- Blade Runner
- My Architect
- Lost In Translation
- The International
- THX 1138
- Æon Flux
- Rear Window
- My Uncle
- Manufatured Landscapes
- The Architect
- Dark City
- The Fountainhead
- The Lake House
- The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
- The Fountain
- The Shining
- The Truman Show
- Paris, I Love You