1920: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Looking for something a bit different from Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin? How about this?
I think I’ve watched this just once before, ten or twelve years ago, probably on the portable TV I had at the time. This time I watched the newly restored blu-ray – a whole different experience. It was pin-sharp and looked like it was filmed yesterday.
Having said that, there used to be a certain mystique about watching scratchy old prints- it made them feel more like they came from a different age. And when you’re young, the fifty or sixty years that had passed since the films were made seems like an incredibly long time. Now, well – I’ve lost things in the backs of drawers for nearly as long.
I wouldn’t go back, though – it’s great to be able to see such beautiful restorations of these films.

So, Caligari: A travelling showman is exhibiting something unusual in his tent at the town carnival: Cesare, a catatonic young man in a box, all dressed in black, with a cadaverous, haunted face, who only wakes up when commanded by Caligari. Sort of a pet emo. Meanwhile, series of murders is being committed in the town and the Cesare is the key suspect. But what is Caligari’s role, and what is the motive?

The first thing any book or documentary tells you about Caligari is that it was the first German Expressionist film. The sets are all very stylised, full of weird angles and exaggerated perspectives – a very dreamlike effect. It almost seems a pity to put real actors in front of them. It’s also very theatrical, and I wonder if a contemporary audience would have seen it that way, or if the sense of artifice comes from a modern familiarity with more realistic production design.
It’s one of those films that you might interpret a different way with each viewing – I’ll probably watch it again soon with the commentary – but its preoccupation with the power of will is intriguing; of one man exercising a sinister control over others – especially with Hitler’s rise just a few years away.

Overall, still quite effective after all these years – maybe not as scary as it once was but still unsettling, especially Conrad Veidt as Cesare, and quite unique.

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