Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)


Film review, written as an archive newspaper article, of the silent expressionist classic about a mysterious doctor associated with a travelling carnival and a spate of murders.

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Director: Robert Wiene. Decla.


Cast & credits

Producers: Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer.
Writers: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz.
Camera: Willy Hameister.
Music: Timothy Brock (1996 reissue).
Sets: Walter Reimann, Walter Rohrig, Hermann Warm.

Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger.




February 26, 1920: The strange little town of Holstenwall in Germany has become a stranger place to live indeed over recent days. Another supposedly fun-filled day at the their yearly fair has been darkened by another diabolical attack on a citizen.

This latest violation is even more heinous and intriguing than the first. It was committed against a young local man known to this newspaper only as Alan, who died after being viciously and heinously knifed in his own bedroom.

It happened less than a day after a weird fortune teller at the fair predicted Alan’s demise before that time had passed.

This frightful calamity itself occurred only a few short days after the brutal and unaccountable slaying of a town clerk, who was done to death after being viciously stabbed in the side by the unknown assailant.

Alan’s friend Francis (Feher) understandably looks constantly worried, as if he sees menace and death behind every corner. He was too distraught to speak to us, but his hypnotically attractive fiancee Jane Olsen (Dagover), daughter of the local GP, did speak a few words. She herself seemed somewhat unbalanced by the recent madness, staring absently into the distance as we questioned her, and whispered this to us:

‘We who are of noble blood may not follow the wishes of our hearts.’

Make of that what you will, but surely chief amongst the Police’s suspects is a side show exhibitor at the fair, a beetling and decidedly sinister looking man by the name of Caligari (Krauss). This expertly shuffling mass is perfectly in keeping with the creepy goings-on, with his painted-on sneer, cartoon spectacles and broken-backed gait.

Another man the authorities are interested in helping with their enquiries is also a strange one, the grandly named and ghoulishly attired Cesare (Veidt), the centre piece of Caligari’s bizarre show. Cesare is a somnambulist, who has not awoken in 23 years, spending his days asleep in a cabinet, but awaking at night to tell people’s futures.

This committed newspaper was present at the ‘truth saying’ evening when Cesare told the young man Alan of what would prove to be his actual end – and what a sight he was too!

His face a white shock of make-up, eyes almost bulging out on stalks as he addressed his suitably shocked audience. He wears a black body stocking, moving in the most extraordinary and mesmerising manner, a ballet like walk, stroking and fingering the walls as he lurches about. The fairer members of the assembled crowd almost fainted dead away as a chill settled around the spectators – and who could blame them!

Although there is no direct link, the attacks started to happen around the time this creepy duo arrived at the fair, a fact of which the police must surely not have overlooked.

But one issue that could be linked to them and has not been lost on this newspaper is the strange, discordant music that plays at the fair this year – tingling string instruments chatter away as if lost in some psychotic conversation to nowhere, creating an unenviable atmosphere guaranteed to make your hackles rise. It is a rhythm perfectly in sync with Caligari and Cesar’s odd art form.

Holstenwall is a veritable crucible of deliberately extroverted action and protagonists. It is designed in the Expressionist fashion, whereby the world is externally distorted to evoke inner moods and emotions and this is represented in the extraordinary, twisted look of the place.

The jauntily angled houses have spindly chimneys rising up like distended fingers clawing towards the sky and windows and doors that resemble vestigial, malformed shapes. This abhorrent look is complemented by the surrounding cardboard forests, with scrawny branches that only vaguely resemble trees.

The invention of the town-planners (noted Expressionist production designers Reimann, Rohrig and Warm) on display here is a startlingly impressive scale of economy. Famously to help save money (Germany is suffering the privations of post-WWI bankruptcy so cash was sparse), they have used painted backdrops on canvas and drastically reduced the scale of this conurbation to make use of their slimmed down resources. The fair itself, tightly packed into as small a space as possible with citizens weaving up and down narrow stairs and passageways with the tops of the spinning carousels resembling children’s toys, wonderfully illustrates this.

All of this contributes to the most nightmarish of environments – death heaped upon death, murder scampers just behind you, as if the internal neuroses and paranoia of the wider society is truly being penetrated and exploded outwardly for our delectation and comment.

Although local talk links the mystery to a local asylum, no investigations there have yet commenced. It is to be hoped that there are no further shocks related to this beautiful and aesthetically original little dream.

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