Two men, sat in some sort of woodland, are swapping stories of unbelievable exploits they have encountered. One man, Francis, tells the tale of Dr. Caligari, a carnival performer with a somnambulist, or sleepwalker, who has been asleep for 25 years, but which Caligari will wake up as part of the show. As soon as the man and his attraction arrived in Francis’ home town of Holstenwall, strange murders began to take place, made even more bizarre by their apparent prediction by the sleepwalker. When his lady-friend seems likely to be the next victim, Francis attempts to uncover the truth behind the murders, starting with the prime suspect of Caligari, who may not be quite what he seems.A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the films on the 1001 List that I’m least looking forward to, and amongst that list I briefly mentioned The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which had earned my apprehension due to some decidely freaky-looking stills I’d seen. I can only hope that I enjoy watching the other films on that list as much as I did this one, because this was a little gem. Upon its release over 90 years ago, I’m sure this would have been the height of cinematic horror – and in fact there are scenes and characters that today are unnerving – but there’s nothing all that scary here. This is great, because I’m not particularly fond of being terrified by films, and if you’re looking for something terrifying then I’d recommend looking elsewhere.
What Cabinet does have in abundance is atmosphere, mostly created by the set design. Throughout the entirety of the film no two surfaces appear to be parallel or perpendicular to one another, walkways and paths jut out at odd angles and shadows are painted upon walls, floors and ceilings. This, along with the lines and swirls painted on walls, hands and faces, and the various pieces of eccentricity, such as the oddly tall clerk’s chairs, give the film more than a touch of the surreal, and put me in mind of an old-fashioned crooked house or hall of mirrors that you might find in a carnival, not unlike the one that brings Dr. Caligari to the town.
The visuals are easily the key drawing point to the film. Be it the image of the sleepwalker, with his overtly pale face and thick eyelashes, being kept asleep upright in his ‘coffin’ on stage, or the figure of Caligari himself, all greased back hair, tiny spectacles and hunched figure. I’d put money on him being an inspiration for Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Batman Returns. There’s also a tussle played out in silhouette – something I’m a big fan of – made all the more eerie by the shadows being projected over some already-painted shadows on the wall.
What most impressed me in the film was the plot. There were a couple of neat little twists along the way – one of which genuinely made me laugh, but with it, not at it – and the ending was something I didn’t expect in the slightest. Perhaps it’s my modern prejudices underestimating a film made almost a century ago – they’d only just made film, how could they make leaps in terms of plot back then too? – but not knowing anything about this film beforehand definitely added to my enjoyment of it. The score was a little overzealous, which isn’t uncommon for a silent film, as is also the case with some of the melodramatic acting, but other than that this was not a film I should have been dreading, moreover it should have been on the list of films I was most looking forward to.
Choose film 8/10