The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari) (1920)
Directed by Robert Wiene

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * *

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Shortly after a traveling showman, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), arrives in the town of Holstenwall with his cadaverous somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who, the former claims, is able to predict the future, a number of persons are murdered. Following the first of these killings, two locals, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan, attend a performance given by Caligari and Cesare, at which the latter prophesies that Alan will die before the next dawn. When his friend is killed that same night, Francis begins to suspect that Caligari and his strange companion may be responsible for the murders. The young hero's subsequent efforts to protect both his town and Jane (Lil Dagover), the woman he loves, reveal, however, that there is far more to this story than is at first apparent.

Although narratively flawed, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, nonetheless, an astonishing, mesmerizing movie.

The set and costume designs utilized throughout the film are so genuinely inventive and so intoxicatingly lovely that they are sure to captivate the viewer and transport him to the otherworldly land the director has manifested. The town wherein the events related in the movie occur is a wild, weird, and obviously unreal place. When seen from the distance, it is a strange jumble of paper houses spreading across a conical hill, and, within, it is a dizzying maze of crazily tilting, almost liquid edifices. Even the shadows playing across the town's structures have clearly been painted there. Everything in this bizarre universe is, in fact, suffused with an intentional artificiality that distinguishes the world of the film from that of waking life.

The costume designs Wiene has used are just as amazing and expressive as are his sets. Jane, for instance, is made sweet and ethereal by the flowing white gown in which she is ever dressed. Caligari, crowned with a chimney-like top hat and wrapt in a bat-like cloak, burns with an eerie villainy. Cesare, thanks to his tight black garments and bold make-up, is imbued with a repellent and uncanny spectrality, and the policemen of Holstenwall, with their dropping mustaches, which resemble the mandibles of ants, are simultaneously absurd and fierce. There is hardly a character in the movie whose appearance is not completely fascinating.

Having so dressed his characters in such evocative costumes, Wiene places them in his distorted landscapes so carefully that nearly every frame of his movie is as beautifully arranged as is any accomplished painting. At various points, he thus presents the viewer with visions of Alan happily sitting in his quaint, crooked house, of Jane sleeping in her cavernous bedroom, of Cesare carrying that girl across the rooftops of buildings as gnarled as half melted candles, and of officials perched atop towering stools, like venomous spiders waiting high above the ground for the approach of their prey below them.

Even the characters' actions are transfigured by an intensely affecting stylization, which distinguishes them from the mannerisms and deeds of ordinary persons. Wiene's actors thus adopt graceful, non-naturalist poses, which draw the moviegoer from his own life and into the rarefied world of the movie. The viewer is, consequently, readily made to forget everything beyond the peculiar vision the director has conjured up and to feel the emotions the film arouses with a surprising poignancy.

What is more, Wiene allows the story he has set in this strange, nightmarish universe to play out like a dream. Caligari is eventually revealed as a doctor running a mental institution rather than as a fiend and the movie's protagonists as inmates there rather than as heroes. All the villainy of the former and all the bravery of the latter are thus exposed as mere delusions. Regrettably, as fascinating as are the film's other hallucinatory elements, this feverish narrative is somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, even though the story's conclusion is awkward and heavy-handed, and it does somewhat diminish The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's appeal, it certainly does not spoil the movie. In fact, for the most part, the tale Wiene tells is able to elicit powerful feelings of wonder and dread.

Whatever its clumsy flaws, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is so consistently involving and so visually astonishing that it is certainly among the most impressive achievements of cinema as an artistic medium.

Review by Keith Allen

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