FT Top 100 Films
60: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
Martin Skidmore says:
A film that is 85 years old is pretty hard to watch the way it would have been viewed at the time. Silent of course, and the acting, particularly Conrad Veidt’s hypnotised character, is wildly exaggerated, a very different style from that which started to become the standard within two decades of this – but once you get used to it, there is a force in the performances here. The story is kind of corny by now too, and director Robert Weine was forced to add a cop-out twist ending (which is sort of fun, though pretty nonsensical) to remove the film’s anti-authoritarian message.
The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari is worth watching for reasons other than out of interest in the history of cinema (significant as it is in that context), and that’s largely because of the extraordinary look of it. The sets are often unmistakeably cardboard flats, but the whole set design (credited to Walter Reimann, Walter R’hrig and Hermann Warm) is captivating throughout and often breathtaking, pure German expressionism, all strange angles and irrational architecture. The direction matches the mood too – this was before anyone had come up with tracking or most other things we are used to, but Wiene creates a powerful atmosphere.
David Steans says:
“Weine tried to repeat his success in later years, but failed miserably.” I wanted to write about this wonderfully abrupt statement from the back of the Caligari DVD exclusively, in lieu of the actual film, but just couldn’t help myself.
I’ve always found Caligari very creepy, but not really for the reasons usually cited. Yes the design is fantastic, as are the chilly tints and Werner Krauss’s monstrous Caligari and about a hundred other things. But it?s the premise of a murderous somnambulist that hooked me. Conrad Veidt’s Cesare has impossibly big eyes and is almost as scary as the Dr. I find the subconscious mind and all it’s connotations so scary I often wonder why horror hasn’t tapped into it more often, or more efficiently. A Nightmare on Elm Street springs to mind, perhaps because it was on Channel 5 the other night. Although here the sleeping characters are the victims, it’s frenetic energy and downright nastiness occasionally creates some of the feelings of helplessness and disorientation that Caligari does. The two films also share a kind of willful abandon when it comes to representations of reality, with Caligari pushing against early cinema’s pre-occupation with realism and Nightmare the stark pared-down aesthetic of the slashers, and possibly even Craven’s own Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.
Whatever the reasons, Fritz Lang’s loss is ours and Weine’s gain, “miserable failures” notwithstanding.
Anthony Easton says:
It’s all about the ending, it is told in the beginning as a story, and revealed in the end as a dream of mad men–all of the artistry and amorality then can be dismissed as nothing more then a mad mens raving. What we are left with is the imagery, and the movie would not have survived with out it. It is an isolating and claustrophobic film to watch, as each frame and then what is in that frame looks as it is about to collapse not only on those on the screen, but maybe even the screen itself, making it into some kind of black hole of angst and fear.
19 July 2004
FT Top 100 Films