Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Dir. Robert Wiene

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Directed by Robert Wiene


Werner Krauss  As...
Dr. Caligari
 Conrad Veidt  As...
 Friedrich Feher  As...
Lil Dagover  As...
Jane Olsen
Hans Heinrich von Twardowski  As...
Rudolf Lettinger  As...  
Dr. Olsen

I wont lie, I didn't really enjoy this film all too much. In fact I did dose off for a couple of minutes toward the end despite having a cup of coffee during the film! But the character of Cesare played by Conrad Veidt was quite awesome!

However, I can see how inspirational the film must have been with its awesome set design and otherworldly appearance. The sets themselves are all painted, including shadow and light. The odd angles and forced perspective lends believability to the dreamy recanting by the film's main protagonist Francis who tells the crazy tale to another fellow who are both sitting on what seems to be a park bench as a woman in eerie looking white gown, zombies her way past the pair.

What ensues is a crazy story filmed on the most annoyingly jumpy filmstrip I wager was ever made, but enough of that.

As I said previously the sets are as mad as a badger, real 'Alice in Wonderland' stuff with forced perspective and shadows painted in. Roy Kinnard in his review said "These sets are cunningly designed; though highly stylized and flat, they somehow manage to present a convincing environment, perhaps because the entire film is shot in this manner on a soundstage, with no "reality" intruding to disrupt the atmosphere." 
This is a succinct summatation of the visual style used in the film. The fact that reality does not in anyway pervade the scenery (event the doors and entryways are subject to the perspective used for the painted sets) greatly emphasised the storyline with the somnambulist* Cesare being pupeteered by the evil Dr Caligari. The final moments of the film where a great plot twist is revealed still feature the former use of painting but without any crazy perspectives or strange painting. In fact the last scene itself where Francis is laid down in restraint is only made odd by the strange angle of the walls themselves, the strange shapes on the walls no longer visisble from a previous scene where Dr Caligari is in the same situation.

The perspectives give the film a crooked look

Even the light and shadow is painted in

This rather large quote, again from Kinnard's review, expresses the effect that the background has on the actors and the appearance of their action. "Light, shadow and other details are starkly painted on the scenery flats, even the actors seem painted, with Caligari sporting dark brush strokes in his hair and wearing lined Mickey Mouse-style gloves ...Veidt manages some genuinely creepy moments as Cesare in Caligari, staggering across the painted, stylized landscapes, his mascara-highlighted eyes bulging with menace." The effect the painted world the actors inhabit has on them is to project them forward, and yet the stylised costumes and makeup also helps to blend them back into the scene, particularly Cesare and Caligari who are the two 'false' characters. The fact that they too 'seem painted' emphasises their  otherworldly personas, their non-existance in the real world, meaning that Caligari does not exist and while Cesare is real, he does not appear to be a deadly sleep walking puppet.

"The time is short, you die at dawn!"

Julia Merriam's review for Classic-Horror.com ties in with Kinnard's views but takes it slightly further; "The actors, too, seem to fit perfectly into this twisted Wonderland. The acting is almost overdone, with wide gestures and almost comically exaggerated faces. And yet, against the exaggerated backdrop, it seems almost natural" I agree with this too, the odd shapes and shadows portrayed I think almost welcome over the top acting where anything less would risk being lost into the paint. I however think Veidt's facework in the film is commendable, not humerous but at times slightly unsettling with the thick mascara and blackened eyes he looks much like a deadly, much more morbid Edward Scissorhands.

Good thing he has no Scissorhands!


*Sleepwalker. I had to google this during the film , before the appeance of Cesare gave me a hint. My vocabulary is looking smaller and smaller as I progress throught the course!


  1. In terms of content, this is solid review - and some nice developmental use of quotes. In terms of style, however, I'd like to see you approach these reviews more formally (in terms of your vocabulary and expression). Don't think I'm some horrible old killjoy - it's just I want you to get plenty of opportunity to develop your 'scholarly' voice - you're going to need it throughout your 3 years with us, and it's a 'curriculum' like any other; use these reviews to hone your style - avoid the first person, avoid slang, and be content-specific. I look forward to Metropolis etc. - don't fall behind!

  2. Trying not to, sorting out my insurance claim and a work transfer from Ashford to Sittingbourne is proving a distraction that should end soon. Now trying to 'eat the elephant byt the slice' ;)