Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


I have really been avoiding the addition of this movie to Cultarama, mostly because an explanation of it is just too damned tiring. Like Eraserhead, this movie can be endlessly discussed and critiqued because of the sheer amount of plot vagueness and surrealistic symbolism involved. Y'know, the whole "was it a dream/fantasy/real life distortion/etc?" Made in 1920 germany, a silent movie of course, therefore the lip reading you can do on American silent films is totally lost here because the actors are speaking in german. You have to rely on facial expression and the rare written text to make heads or tails of this incredibly dreamlike movie. Most dreamlike of all has got to be the sets, which are totally bizarre. Mostly made of paper, there are crooked houses, warped streets, and the trees look like cheap silhouettes made from construction paper. Probably one of the cheapest sets ever made, yet mesmerizing in it's puzzling appearance. This strange atmosphere dramatically enhances the feeling of being in a dream, a fantasy, a delusion, or whatever the hell this movie is supposed to be. The bare bones of the story is this: Francis is sitting on a bench telling someone his story. A glassy eyed woman drifts in front of them, Francis remarks that this is his fiancee. One look at her and you know somethin' ain't right. Francis tells the story of how he and his best friend Alan are in love with the same woman, Jane. A creepy carnival (is there any other kind?) comes to town. With this carnival is a creepy old man named Dr. Caligari, presenting as his exhibit, a somnambulist (a sleep walker) named Cesare who has been sleeping for the past 23 years. When awoken, Cesare can tell your future. Cesare, by the way, is the creepiest looking dude imaginable, with solid black eyes and a mouth that looks like a cross between Joan Crawford and Mick Jagger (blood red and HUGE!). Anyway, Alan asks Cesare "How long will I live?" Cesare informs Alan that he'll die by tomorrow morning. Naturally, Alan freaks. That night, a murder by stabbing takes place. The next morning comes and Alan's fortune comes true when he is found stabbed to death as well. We see a shadow of the murderer which looks an awful lot like Cesare. Soon, Jane is kidnapped by a man that looks like Cesare, yet Cesare's whereabouts are confirmed by police to have been sleeping in his cabinet/coffin/bed, whatever it is. This proves very puzzling until Cesare is to be inspected a little more closely by police and a dummy is found in the cabinet instead. Francis is enraged and chases Dr. Caligari who flees to an asylum. Francis asks if a patient named Caligari is a resident of the asylum. He is met with confusion and brought to the asylum Director's office. Guess who the asylum Director is... that's right, Dr. Caligari. That night while Dr. Caligari is asleep, an investigation ensues. Francis and some friends raid Caligari's office and read his diary. They learn that his main course of study is somnambulism. They also find a book containing information about a mystic named Dr. Caligari, who in 1703 toured with a carnival, exhibiting a somnambulist who he had enslaved into doing his bidding and committing crimes that kept many towns in a panic for months on end. Having the sleep walker committing Caligari's crimes proved beneficial in relieving Caligari from being caught as the actual killer. The present day Dr. Caligari (his real name is never given) begins to obsess over his idol, the Dr. Caligari from 1703 that could make a sleep walker do all his bidding. His diary reveals his desire to become Caligari and his elation that a somnambulist has finally been committed to the asylum in which he is the Director of. This means that he can finally study and unravel the secrets of how the Dr. Caligari from 1703 succeeded in making somnambulists do his will. The present day doctor's plans are finally discovered, he is put in a straight jacket and hauled off to his crooked paper cell. In the next scene, we see what seems to be the inside of the asylum. Francis is there telling another inmate not to talk to Cesare or you'll end up dead. He then asks a comatose Jane to marry him. She responds with a nonsensical answer that an asylum inmate would definitely come up with. When the doctor approaches, Francis exclaims "I'm not crazy, he IS Caligari!" The doctor then mumbles something to himself about how he now knows what the cause of his mania is and how to cure him. OK, so we're left asking ourselves... Was Francis also an inmate at the asylum? Did he simply fabricate a story using other inmates as the characters? Was the present asylum Director really obsessed with an old mystic named Caligari? Was Francis just displaying his own insanity by accusing the Director of being the real Dr. Caligari? Who exactly was the insane one? My guess is that it's a little of all of those possibilities. Whether it makes sense to you or not, it's still a cinematic masterpiece. Made in 1920, it's often regarded as the first horror movie. It didn't really scare me, but for the time, a twist ending like that was not at all common. The sets definitely give you that surrealistic dreamland sort of feeling, and are at sometimes almost dizzying. Common sense tells you that this was a black and white film, but on the DVD release, almost every scene is tinted by a wide range of colors. Tense scenes were tinted brown, tender scenes in pink or purple, and asylum scenes in various shades of blue. Overall, it's one of the most artistic and beautifully conceived movie I've ever seen. A little confusing, but what a boring world it would be if every movie was plain and bluntly predictable. Being quite the opposite, this movie can be watched and discussed over and over again... and maybe with the right drugs, it could actually make sense. A side note for Rob Zombie fans, Zombie used this film as his inspiration for the video of his hit song "Living Dead Girl". He plays Caligari and his wife Kitty plays a combination character of Jane and Cesare.

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