REVIEW: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: ROBERT WEINE / SCREENPLAY: CARL MAYER, HANS JONWITZ / STARRING: WERNER KRAUSS, CONRAD VEIDT, FRIEDRICH FREHER / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 29TH
Robert Weine’s proto-horror movie united Expressionism and Freudian nightmares. The brand new 4K digital restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a marvel to behold and has revealed picture details possibly not seen, due to print quality issues, since 1920.
Two plot twists occur in the film, but it’s the second one that is the most terrifying and thematically resonant. After the story is unveiled as the crazed imaginings of a damaged brain, the wildly Expressionist sets remain. There is no return to a more naturalistic environment that would provide a clear delineation between fact and fantasy.
The representation of a reality with no basis in our world must have been startling at the time. The characters and the world they occupy is like Edvard Munch’s 1893 masterpiece, The Scream, come to vivid life. Owing a clear debt to burgeoning avant-garde fine art and the theatre, the film’s influence on other movies would in turn be massive.
A couple of scenes feel pivotal to the subsequent development of horror cinema: Cesare waking up during a show (he’s a somnambulist controlled by the fiendish Dr. Caligari) and the kidnapping of Jane. Watching Cesare (Veidt) stirring from sleep at the command of his master’s voice is like watching a dead body reanimate after zombification. The eyes express a profound confusion and sorrow. Here, this sideshow attraction – this carny ghoul act – appears to acknowledge his own monstrousness. A brilliant piece of acting by Veidt, it’s a representation of a fiend resigned to his fate and yet it indicates, too, that not all monsters are inherently evil.
Even if the camera placement and framing (in general) does not replicate the wild angles of the magnificently artificial sets, the scene in which Cesare kidnaps Jane is noteworthy. Abandoning the initial close-ups and cuts of the sneaking murderer rising into view and creeping through a large set of glass doors, director Weine uses deep-focus to excellent effect. Jane sleeps in the foreground and Cesare approaches the girl (and the camera) with a ghostlike stealth from the background. It is an early example of palpable screen terror.
Writers have suggested that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a foreshadowing of the coming Nazi era. Whether you find such a theory fanciful or intriguing, the film has remained an important benchmark in cinema history as it presented us with the idea that celluloid visions could be haunting and sinister.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10
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