Mon, 11 February 2019
From Kim Newman, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die:
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the keystone of a strain of bizarre, fantastical cinema that flourished in Germany in the 1920s and was linked, somewhat spuriously, with the Expressionist art movement. If much of the development of the movies in the medium's first two decades was directed toward the Lumiere-style 'window to the world', with fictional or documentary stories presented in an emotionally stirring manner designed to make audiences forget they were watching a film, Caligari returns to the mode of Georges Melies by presting magical, theatrical effects that exaggerate or caricature reality. Officials perch on ridiculously high stools, shadows are painted on walls and faces, and unrealistic backdrops and performances are stylized to the point of hysteria.
"Writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz conceived the film as taking place in its own out-of-joint world, and director Robert Wiene and set designers Hermann Warm, Walter Roehrig, and Walter Reimann put a twist on every scene and even intertitle to insist on this. Controversially, Fritz Lang - at an early stage attached as director - suggested that Caligari's radical style would be too much for audiences to take without 'explanation'. Lang devised a frame story in which the hero Francis (Friedrich Feher) recounts the story - of sinister mesmerist charlatan Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), his zombielike somnambulist slave Cesare (Conrad Veidt), and a series of murders in the rickety small town of Holstenwall - and is finally revealed to be an asylum inmate who, in The Wizard of Oz (1939) style, has imagined a narrative that incorporates various people in his daily life. This undercuts the antiauthoritarian tone of the film as Dr. Caligari, in the main story an asylum director who has become demented, is revealed as a decent man out to help the hero. However, the asylum set in the frame story is the same 'unreal' one seen in the flashback, making the whole film and not just Francis's bracketed story somehow unreliable. Indeed, by revealing its expressionist vision to be that of a madman, the film could even appeal to conservatives who deemed all modernist art as demented.
"Wiene, less innovative than most of his collaborators, makes little use of cinematic technique, with the exception of the flashback-within-a-flashback as Krauss is driven mad by superimposed instructions that he 'must become Caligari.' The film relies on theatrical devices, the camera fixed center stage as the sets are displayed and the actors (especially Veidt) providing any movement or impact. Lang's input served to make the movie a strange species of amphibian: It plays as an art movie to the high-class crowds who appreciate its innovations, but it's also a horror movie with a gimmick. With its sideshow ambience, hypnotic mad scientist villain, and leotard-clad, heroine-abducting monster, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a major early entry in the horror genre, introducing images, themes, and characters that became fundamental to the likes of Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein (both 1931)."
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