The Cabinet of Dr Caligari - Review -Wednesday Lee Friday’s list ’15 Black & White Horror Movies that are Scary as Hell.’
S P Oldham
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – Number 8 on Wednesday Lee Friday’s list ’15 Black & White Horror Movies that are Scary as Hell.’ https://screenrant.com/scariest-black-and-white-horror-movies-ever-all-time/
The music is genuinely chilling and sinister at first, but quickly becomes repetitive and annoying. Originally, I have no doubt it added a great deal of drama and intensity to this otherwise silent film.
Regarded as a leader and an important film in German Expressionism, to my unqualified eye the scenery has a child’s picture book, almost cartoonish appearance, more akin to a stage play than a film, with some oddly unsettling perspectives to boot. There are lots of strange patterns on walls, floors etc which throughout the entire film made me think of some sort of abstract art style. Doors open at weird angles, there are lots of distorted shapes littered throughout the film. I know, I know, that IS expressionism...
The Clerk’s stool and desk are absurdly high, giving the scene when Dr. Caligari petitions him a strange quality. Perhaps this is historically accurate, or perhaps it was for reasons of dramatic impact. I think the latter, signifying Caligari’s status in comparison to that of the officious Town Clerk. We see the police officers also sitting on very high stools, seemingly to convey the same message.
I had to google translate the word ‘Irrenanstalt’ written on the wall when Mr. Frances follows Dr. Caligari after he has been exposed. For those of you who don’t know, the word means ‘mental institution’ or ‘asylum.’ I also noticed a recurrence of the number 5, on the Clerk’s podium and on the walls of the prison, but I have no idea what meaning, if any, can be attached to that. After a little research I found this link. Make of it what you will: https://mysticalnumbers.com/number-5/
I confess to being confused by the ending. SPOILER ALERT: If Dr. Caligari was discovered, put in the straight jacket and presumably incarcerated as an inmate of the asylum, how is it that later on he is still Director and has Mr. Frances incarcerated as insane? Are we supposed to think that it was all in Mr. Frances head and if so, how is it that Jane is also insane? If not, then how is Caligari once again free and acting as Director of the asylum? Or is it that they were all insane from the start, that the entire story takes place in Mr. Frances’ head/within the asylum walls and Caligari is in fact sane? An interesting twist on the story.
If you were inclined to go deeper, I think this film throws up some interesting questions about personal responsibility and culpability, in particular; if you persuade or force someone to commit murder on your behalf, how much of the responsibility is actually yours if you never so much as held the knife, so to speak?
There is most definitely a dark and unsettling feel to this film, though I can’t help but wonder how much of that is the sheer age, the theatrical qualities mentioned above, including the bizarre whiting of the actors faces and the strange backdrops rather than the film itself. Like most of the films on this list it would not stand up as horror today. It should be remembered that it was made in 1920, not long after the First World War – I can’t help wondering if this had any effect on the way in which the film was made?
What I can say about this film is that this is the first of the 15 that has truly made me think. I was not familiar with the story before I watched it, which helped me stick with it. To be honest I found it hard going to watch, because of all the inevitable overacting, curious dramatic poses, facial expressions and face make up applied with a trowel – all in keeping with the era and with stage drama, I suppose – coupled with the arty styling of the sets, which I found distracting and irritating. Personal choice only, of course.
Scary as hell? No. Slightly unsettling? Yes. Food for thought too. If you haven’t seen it and don’t mind silent films then it might be for you, but for me, once was enough.