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From the Vaults: 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1919)

October 22, 2010 |  4:04 am

Caligari Is there anything new to say about "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"? Not really, but Halloween is a time for classics. And the best thing about this silent landmark of German expressionism is how magnificently new it still looks. Grainy and faded, sure, but with imagery that still looks like nothing else, no matter how many times it's been imitated or referenced. If you've never seen it, don't miss it.

We open with a framing device, in which handsome leading man Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells a concerned-looking friend about a transforming experience he shared with his fiancee (Lil Dagover), who wanders by with a white nightgown and a glazed expression in full "House of Usher" style. Then the movie flashes back, and it's here the fun begins.

Francis' hometown of Holstenwall is having a carnival, we're told, but it looks like every day in Holstenwall is a day in the funhouse. Walls and ceilings tilt at insane angles, crazy patterns are painted on the streets and floors: It's all unabashedly artificial-looking and wild. Even the man who lights the streetlamps is askew, walking with a limp. But most of the townspeople just stroll through this strange like it's all perfectly normal. The effect is immediately a bit dizzying.

Something new and weird is at this year's carnival: a somnambulist, named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), placed on display by one Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). Apparently being a somnambulist means you don't mind being kept in a box and can predict the future -- but we quickly learn that it also means being an enslaved murderer! Cesare is quickly dispatched to slay a town clerk who gets on Caligari's nerves, as well as a local guy named Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Unfortunately for Caligari, Alan was Francis' best friend, and Francis resolves to solve the murder. (The town clerk, it seems, had no friends.)

Caligarinapping Things get a bit complicated. A false suspect is arrested. The title cards -- set in type as expressionistic and wild as the set design -- say wonderful things like "I will obtain police permission to question the somnambulist." It's all just buildup to the big, iconic set piece: Cesare is sent to murder Lil Dagover's Jane, but unable to kill her, instead tucks her senseless form neatly under his arm and goes wandering through the crazed streets of Holstenwall.

The classic scene is Cesare's only moment of peace, and it doesn't last long: pursued by a mob, and lost without his master's ruthless commands, he drops Jane and runs offscreen. It's the last we see of him -- almost.

My understanding is that it's all meant to be an allegory of tyranny, with Cesare standing in for the oppressed. Caligari himself turns out to harbor an even darker secret -- which is totally undercut by the film's twist ending, after the action returns to the framing device. I'll spare you, but it's annoying. The film's final few moments, set at a lunatic asylum, are beautiful and haunting, but they don't make up for the loss of the story. Oh well.

As always in your silent films, the physicality of the actors is tremendous. All the actors react here with their whole bodies -- when Jane is given a bad piece of news, she spins and reels and clutches her head, staring out with her tremendous black-rimmed eyes. ("Her makeup," noted The Times in 1927, "is rather trying.") Veidt is incredibly balletic as Cesare. Impossibly long and lean to begin with, he infuses every line of his body with tension as he creeps up on Jane. The cartoonish exaggerations go beautifully with the sets. You're watching a feeling more than a film. It's hopelessly beautiful.

On a historical note, "Caligari" caused a bit of a stir when it played in Los Angeles in 1921 -- it was a German film, after all, and people felt quite strongly about that sort of thing at the time. Larry's got more on that here.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon