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DIRECTOR: Robert Wiene RELEASE DATE: February 26, 1920 RATING: Unrated
CAST: Warner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, et al.
// review by Beverley

My, what a darling old cabinet...

If you're looking for something exotic and unusual, a silent horror film from 1920 might just be it. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a mysterious film about a doctor who entertains the public at fairs with a somnabulist (a.k.a. a sleepwalker) and a series of mysterious murders.

If you enjoyed "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus", then you will enjoy the magic and nostalgic charm of this film, but interestingly I would say the style most closely resembles the work of Tim Burton, which you can imagine would be very shocking for film at the time. Since the story is framed as a recount (apparently this was already a very edgy and unique thing to do in film in the 1920s), the set is given a jagged, surreal, almost cartoon-like appearance; one scene has a staircase that allows actors to wander back and forth on it, appearing as though they were meandering into the distant hills. The actors' features, particularly the combed-back hair, eyebrows, and hand lines of Dr. Caligari and the eyes of Cesare the sleepwalker are highlighted and cartoonified with face paint. The style of film is an excellent combination of darkness and whimsy, perfect for a terrifying tall tale.

One respect in which this film is not like Tim Burton's work and is very closely tied to its time, however, is in terms of the music. Unfortunately, because this was a silent film, the music was still very instrumental and traditional for the time. It's not as though the music doesn't suit the film (in fact, it can be very dramatic at times), but it would be very interesting to see what the film would be like with a more modern soundtrack.

Although, like any older films, the pacing in the movie is slow, the acting is actually fairly good for the time. For example, the look of horror on one victim's face before he was murdered was fairly realistic and convincing. The cast selection was also pretty well done, as the heroine, Jane Olsen (as played by Lil Dagover) looks very innocent. Both her and Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) are very pale and have fine features and large eyes, giving them both the appearance of innocence and a tinge of morbidity frequently favoured by Tim Burton films. Dr. Caligari is extremely terrifying, mainly because of his facial qualities and his frightening gestures and mannerisms.

Despite being occasionally difficult to see and having to read the dialogue, I really enjoyed this movie. I was especially impressed by the twist ending (even if it would be judged as cliché by today's standards) as it reframes the entire film.


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