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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: He said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah . . ."

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Now I consider it part of my job to not only comment on the Current Film Scene (or at least that part which features costumed superheroes in the cast), but to occasionally educate you on absolutely shmoozy items from the past. After all, you do want to grow up to be Sophisticated Movie Buffs like Uncle Mikey, don't you?

stills from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
stills from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

(In the distance a dog howls.)

So it was with interest that I recently learned of an upcoming release of a fully restored version of Robert Wiene's 1920 classic: "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and, being so interested, I naturally felt obligated to pass the happy news on to you.

I must, however, preface further remarks with something of a caveat. Having premiered at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, the restored film will be featured in British theaters on August 29 of this year, and be released on Blu-ray in September. Translate as: the odds of it appearing in any theaters within the sound of my voice can be filed under the category of "No Way In Hell".

Ah me . . .

And, before I go further, a bit of housecleaning is going to take place. It can be imagined by some that, in the best of all possible worlds, my writings here would be read by every living soul on Earth. Truth be told, however, I don't want the most readers in the world. Rather: I want the best readers in the world.

(Can the Kid stroke or what?)

So. first off, I'm going to go ahead and point out that "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is a silent film.

(Some of you out there automatically go EWWWWWWWW.)

It was made in Germany.


It doesn't star anyone who's alive today.


There's not a car chase, bikini or hot tub scene anywhere in the film.


None of your high school friends will be watching it.


So there. Actually, if "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" did find its way to Charleston, I suspect I'd have the entire theater to myself. Which is sort of the way I like it, but that's another story altogether.

Well, now that we've cleared the room of Michael Baywatchers and assorted other Snookitrash, we can get on with the commentary at hand. And I am sympathetic to the notion that some of you might have problems with silent German cinema (restored or otherwise). One of the most brilliant and admirable people I know has an aversion to black-and-white films and television. We all have our little quirks.

What I want to do here is try and impress upon you the importance of "Caligari" in the overall cinematic scheme of things. If you consider yourself something of a science-fiction/horror genre film completist, then "Caligari" becomes a must-see. If you're a genre film purist then "Caligari" is still a must-see.

And guess what. Even if you possess only an interest in Important Cinema, then "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is still a must-see. Along with "Metropolis", "King Kong" and "2001: A Space Odyssey", "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" enters that rare category of Genre Films Which Are Part of Significant Cinema History.

The film is perhaps more famous for its production values than its story, but more on those later. The screenplay, by Hans Janowitz and Erich Pommer, tells the story of Francis (played by Frederich Feher) and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardoswki): two happy-go-lucky friends living in the quaint German village of Holstenwall. Look for it not in books or on maps, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A community gone with the wind . . .

Well anyway . . . Francis and Alan are both in love with the beautiful Jane. She's played by Lil Dagover who was a busy little bee in both German cinema and television, spending sixty years in the business. The fact that practically everyone on this side of the ocean remember her only for "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" says more about the film than about Dagover's indefatigable talent.

Francis and Alan both want to marry Jane, and they declare that they'll remain the truest of friends no matter who Jane chooses (as all of you nod and go "right"). But wait! A carnival has come to Holstenwall, and our Best Buddies decide to go and check it out. They end up attending a performance by the mysterious Dr. Caligari: a cloaked and bloated figure sporting a tall dark hat and thick glasses. He is played by the great German character actor Werner Krauss who, very unfortunately, was also a great anti-Semite and later a Nazi. As with Dagover he is best known here for "Caligari", but for obviously different reasons.

(In fairness it should be mentioned that Hitler was a fan of Dagover, and had her as a dinner guest whenever opportunity presented itself. But Dagover's sympathies lay far removed from those of Hitler or, for that matter, Krauss.)

Caligari's carnival act involves the exhibition of a somnanbulist by the name of Cesare. And yeah, some of you are going "huh?", so I'll explain. A somnanbulist is a person who lives in a perpetual state of sleepwalking. Sort of like a pre-med student, but a bit neater. Think of a zombie without an appetite for human flesh and you wouldn't be far off.

So now you're asking why anyone would pay money to see a somnanbulist. Fair point. But keep in mind that (A) this was in the days before cable television, and (B) Cesare's state apparently gives him the power to answer any question about the future. This is put to the test when Alan blithely asks Cesare how long he shall live. In one of the more chilling moments of the film, Cesare glares at Alan and declares "Until dawn!"

Sure enough, Alan meets with a brutal death at the hands of an unknown shadowy figure that very night. In fact, murders seem to have been cropping up all over Holstenwall. Coincidentally enough they seem to have started when the carnival arrived.

Could it be . . .

(Brief but necessary detour here. Cesare is played by Conrad Veidt, and some of you should now perk up and go: "Hey! That name sounds familiar". And well it should, pumpkins. Veidt would go on to make a rather impressive swath through cinema; among other things playing the titular character of Paul Leni's "The Man Who Laughs" . . . which provided the inspiration for The Joker. He was also the villainous Jaffar in Alexander Korda's spectacular "The Thief of Bagdad", and soon afterwards entered movie immortality as Major Strasser in "Casablanca". As Cesare, Veidt is appropriately creepy: a lithe figure dressed all in black, and with eyes made up so peculiarly that the viewer sometimes has trouble knowing when they open. An excellent counterpart to Krauss' imposing bulk.)

Well, after Alan ends up murdered, Francis and Jane naturally decide to investigate (friendship, after all, being what it is . . . even if everyone else is screaming BAD IDEA). Caligari naturally finds out ("it's those darned kids!") and orders Cesare to kill Jane. Cesare tries to obey but, instead, ends up kidnapping Jane and hauling her fair tookus over the rooftops of Holstenwall.

And while all this is happening, Francis (remember Francis?) decides to investigate Holstenwall's psychiatric hospital (a small town with a carnival and a psychiatric hospital. Welcome to Germany!). He inquires if the hospital ever had a patient by the name of Caligari, and is told . . .

But I'm not going to spoil it for you, pumpkins. I'll just say that, along with all the other experimentation that went on with the film, Wiene and the screenwriters came up with something new: the Twist Ending! Audiences in 1920 would see the film and go "HOLY S**T" (or the Germanic equivalent). And if that wasn't enough, Wiene tacks on yet another Twist Ending. Small wonder "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was leaving audiences of the day rather breathless (Cesare's line, "Until dawn!", became something of a catchphrase for the period. Sort of like "Follow the money" or "Take the cannoli" today).

Robert Wiene was an important and prolific German director and, as with Orson Welles, his reputation would be cemented with only a few films. Besides "Caligari" he is perhaps best known for a 1923 adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment". By the time of his death in 1938 he had cast a broad shadow of influence for other filmmakers to follow.

"Caligari" would stand as his masterpiece, and deservedly so. When it was made the rules for filmmaking were still in their infancy, and Wiene was one of the first to practically strangle the rules in its crib. Even more than the plot shifts, "Caligari" is best know for its overall look. With Hermann Warm as set designer, and Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig as painters, "Caligari" soon became not so much a motion picture as a piece of Expressionist art. The overall shot of the town of Holstenwall looks like a tabletop model which someone has tried to fit into a shoebox. The walls, streets, rooms, buildings and roofs assume bizarre angles covered with shadows and areas of "light" which were painted on. Furniture is out of proportion, doors are misshapen, and one could be excused for thinking that the film is a madman's dream . . .


"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was one of the first genuinely original experiments in cinema. The first shot fired from the twisted and dark genius which was German cinema of a century ago. Along with Wegener's "The Golem", "Caligari" forms the essential foundation for Horror Cinema; paving the way for later efforts such as Murnau's "Nosferatu", and the notably Germanic-influenced works of Tod Browning and James Whale. It is the cinematic equivalent of the music of Robert Johnson: far-reaching . . . visionary . . . influential . . . and, it might be rumored, a product of a deal with the Devil.

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