The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
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One of the most influential films of all time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is generally acknowledged as the first German Expressionist film. It was inspired by an art movement that reached its peak in Germany during the period 1918-1933 and was filmed entirely in Berlin's Decla Studio, with the exception of the prologue and epilogue which take place in a garden.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari recounts the story of the mysterious mesmerist, Dr. Caligari, and his somnambulist, Cesare (the pale complexion and dark circles under his eyes would set the standard look for movie zombies). After their arrival in town, mysterious murders begin to occur and Francis, a local villager, suspects Cesare. When Francis's girlfriend is kidnapped by Cesare, it becomes obvious that Dr. Caligari is programming the somnambulist to carry out his murderous commands. Francis pursues Caligari to a mental asylum where Caligari is arrested and put into a straitjacket. But the conclusion provides a twist ending that forces audiences to reconsider everything they have just witnessed.
Based on the premise alone, the film would be intriguing, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari uses elements of foreshadowing, irony, suspense, shock, symbolism, and imagery to create an unnatural world where reality becomes a warped excursion through shadows and abstract designs. This disorienting effect is achieved through the remarkable art direction of three artists - Herman Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Rehrig - and includes twisted streets, over-hanging buildings, crazily squeezed rooms and contorted scenery. Because Decla Studio was severely restricted in its use of electricity and lighting, the designers also painted light beams and shadows on the sets to great effect.
Caligari producer Erich Pommer originally offered the film to director Fritz Lang who turned it down since he was already engaged in the making of Die Spinnen (1919). Although there are differing accounts of this, it has also been reported that Lang made two important suggestions to Pommer; he recommended that Robert Weine direct the film and that a framing device be used to make the film more accessible to German audiences. The latter suggestion angered the screenwriters since it undermined their anti-authoritarian theme and achieved the opposite result - the idea that individual freedom leads to rampant chaos. Despite their protests, prologue and epilogue were added by Weine and the result was an unsettling, nightmarish experience which was labeled "degenerate art" by the Nazis. Most importantly, while many movies during this time tended toward documentary-like objectivism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari showed that a film could portray the subjective as well, opening up new realms of psychological exploration.
Director: Robert Weine
Producer: Erich Pommer
Screenplay: Carl Meyer, Hans Janowitz
Cinematography: Willy Hameister
Art Direction: Walter Reimann, Herman Warm, Walter Rohrig
Cast: Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), Cesare (Conrad Veidt), Jane (Lil Dagover), Francis (Friedrich Feher), Alan (Hans von Twardowski), Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger).
By Michael Toole