Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Cabinet of Dr Calligari (1920)

A man named Francis relates a story about his best friend Alan and his fiancée Jane. Alan takes him to a fair where they meet Dr. Caligari, who exhibits a somnambulist, Cesare, that can predict the future. When Alan asks how long he has to live, Cesare says he has until dawn. The prophecy comes to pass, as Alan is murdered, and Cesare is a prime suspect. (Imdb rating 8.0)

Ok, ok, I may be just a little out of my depth here. Having seen a grand total of two silent films before The Cabinet of Dr Caligari doesn't exactly make me such an expert of the nuances of 1910's/20's film. But Cabinet is weird, and I know weird movies.

Just to get it out of the way for all of the younger folks that didn't grow up with silent films (aka everyone), yes, there are substantial differences between films now and then. Obviously, there is zero sound outside of the musical score, characters don't say a whole lot, and when they do and it is important, there are title cards of what was said. There are other interesting techniques as well, such as different screen tints for different times of the day/lighting, and the always hilarious overacting, because actors felt that their lack of words was hampering them in telling the story. Just think Calculon from Futurama.

But that shouldn't disguise just how groundbreaking Cabinet was. I mean, it was probably the first film to ever have a flashback framing device, and most likely the first proper horror movie. Still, what makes Cabinet so strange is that the movie sets themselves. I can't say I've seen anything like it before. The whole set is made of paper and cardboard, but seems to have a life of its own, to be able to leer over characters, and it creates a sense of unease throughout the film. Buildings that go at 45° angles, trees that lean in, it's like space itself is warped and distorted.

Are those houses or the ends of ships?

While I wouldn't go as far to say that Cabinet was scary, there were moments when I watched intently, such as the first appearance of 'the Somnambulist'. The story was engaging, the run time was brisk (a notorious problem for silent films I find is that they are way too long) and the ending was really good, and could be considered another first as well.

Overall, this is the perfect movie to start with for your first silent. It will keep you long enough to finish anyways.

Things I learnt:
  • There was film studio pressure even in 1920.
  • Tim Burton has pretty much stolen everything from this movie for all of his.

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