Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Short Take: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a landmark in the medium’s history, but watching it is more an exercise in satisfying curiosity than anything else. The sets and props, created by Hermann Warm in collaboration with the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, are the main point of interest. Heavily influenced by the paintings of Marc Chagall and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, with touches that recall Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso, their work is a striking attempt to bring the aesthetics of German Expressionism to film. And it would seem appropriate to the story, which is the fantasy of a deranged man (Friedrich Fehér) about the doctor (Werner Krauss) who has institutionalized him. The stylized, angular contortions of the sets seem an appropriate analogue to the twisted imaginings of a disturbed psyche. But while one can see how the visual design is supposed to complement the narrative, one doesn’t feel it. The plotting is tired and thin, and the director, Robert Wiene, doesn’t have the flair for suspense demonstrated by contemporaries like D. W. Griffith. But the story has had its influence, most notably with its golem character (Conrad Veidt), who has proven the model for any number of movie monsters. The ones that immediately come to mind are the various cinematic treatments of the Mummy and the Frankenstein creature. But overall, the picture illustrates how a historically important work is not necessarily a worthwhile entertainment. The screenplay is by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Lil Dagover plays the damsel in distress.

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