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Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Reviewed By Kevin Thomas
Posted 05/07/04 10:47:50

"Want to know how to do 'atmosphere'? Watch and learn..."
5 stars (Awesome)

I remember reading about this movie about 8 years ago, in a book called ‘The Scary Howl of Fame’, who labelled it ‘The First Horror Movie Ever’. Well, while this is debateable, the significance of the movie is not. It sparked a wave of German expressionist cinema, and completely revolutionised story telling of the time. I subconsciously hid this away in my mind, until I stumbled across a silent film festival during my first few months of university, and guess what was playing…

I was lucky, in that I first saw the movie in an old-style art-house cinema, with a soundtrack played on dulcimers (as it was always meant to be, it being one of the first silent films to ever have a custom made soundtrack), and I saw the original cut (with the original German text cards subtitled instead of the more readily available English substitutions, and the painstakingly hand-tinted coloured frames). Quite simply, it was the movie as it was meant to be seen.

If at all possible, I urge you to try and do the same, but such a fortunate coincidence rarely befalls us, so you will almost certainly have to make do with the DVD cut. Even so, it is still a wonderful film, even if it simply not the same experience as it would be in the cinema.

It is the story of how one mans life is seemingly destroyed by a mysterious doctor who comes to the town fair with an odd exhibit; a somnambulist (a man who has been asleep, allegedly, for 25 years). His act is the ability to wake up the somnambulist, who can then foretell the future to members of the audience. When one man (who asked how long he would live, and received the answer ‘you die at dawn’) is found murdered, a set of events are set in motion that lead to one of the best cinematic plot twists on film.

Expressionism was a wonderful movement, as every emotion felt through the movie is perfectly expressed through everything from set design to music. The set design is beyond inspired, and is as close to beautiful as painted cardboard can get. Every set piece was painstakingly painted in the angular, off-key, disorientating manner that can be seen, and heightens the growing sense of impending doom and mysterious atmosphere that surrounds the story no end. Added to this is the out of proportion prop design, the eerie, alien way the characters move around on screen, not to mention to abominable presence of one Dr Caligari. Whatever feeling is supposed to be running through a particular scene literally drips off everything on screen, and as a result, you simply can’t help being dragged into the story and feeling everything occurring as though it were happening to you.

Though it clocks in at a fairly short fifty-three minutes long (not uncommon for 1919, given that there would have been an artist at the front frantically playing the movie’s score in time to the action), the story is no less complete for it, and never do you feel as though the shorter running time somehow gives you less value.

Even in our modern world of surround sound, CGI and eye-bleedingly powerful special effects, few movies can ever truly capture the feel of their narrative as effectively or lovingly as this movie. Try and see it at a proper picture house, but don’t put off seeing this for any longer than you need to.

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