Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1919)
Director - Robert Wiene
Starring - Werner Krauss, Conrad Viedt, and Frederich Feher
We've all been through the situation in which a movie that we missed gets watched by everyone else. Everyone else loves the film and proceeds to tell us about it and how good it is. It's at this point that we go to see said film, and lo and behold, it's disappointing. For one reason or another it doesn't stack up or meet our expectations. I think we can all agree that this sucks.
There is a similar scenario that I've encountered a few times, where the extremely popular film gets talked up to such a degree that it starts getting boring again. We get sick of hearing about it, it might come from a certain time frame that doesn't necessarily interest us, doesn't have sound, or whatever. Long story short, we are disappointed going INTO the film. Despite the fact that the glowing reviews haven't changed, they've been negated by our own shitty attitude. Going into a movie this way, makes it seem pretty good, or if you're lucky like I was with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it ends up being pretty great.
Few movies have had as much of a lasting impact, been as visually striking, impacting and influential as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The tone is set up from the start, and it continues to bleed menace and unease for the rest of its compact 80 minute run time. The premise, the makeup and most of all the set pieces serve to keep the tone of the film from faltering or the pace from slowing down, and all of these elements work together to enhance something that could have easily been over-rated.
The story is one that is familiar to modern movie audiences, yet it is not one that is expected. I have to be careful when explaining it to not give too much away, but suffice to say, a strange character comes to town, Dr. Caligari, a somnambulist, with large claims of hypnotism, and mystery (now I'm still a little unclear whether the term somnambulist refers to Dr. Caligari himself or to his perpetually sleeping minion Cesare). That very night a horrible murder occurs, and by chance the victim happens to be someone who had a run in with Dr. Caligari earlier on in the story. The show goes on and the murders continue, until someone makes the connection, and starts to probe a little further into the past of this Caligari character.
In the film's historical time frame, acting was a loose term at best that was really more a study of posing and moving ones eyes, but it is put to good use here as each actor manages to convey a fair amount of terror and suspicion all through their looks. The most successful of these performances is turned in by Werner Krauss, as the good doctor himself. A fair amount of his success is due to his makeup and to the set pieces, both of which accentuate the unsettling nature of his character's devious nature. Caligari slinks around all sneers and grimaces, perpetuating the fear and discomfort of the audience, all without the convenience of dialogue. Similarly effective is the gaunt haunted character Cesare, Caligari's minion, though he is really more of a tool of menace that the doctor wields than a character in his own right.
The one drawback I can point to as something that took me out of the story, was the speed at which the subtitles delivered the necessary information. They operated at a snail's pace, and stayed up on-screen way too long. I suppose that can be chalked up to the fact that at the time it was made, film was a newer art form, and as such was subject to the learning curve just like everything else. Though it explains things, being able to read the cue card 5-8 times through before they changed doesn't make it any less distracting during what is otherwise a rather tense narrative.
All in all, I would definitely champion this film to be one of the 1001 films one should make a point of seeing before they die. It belongs on this list as an example of history, technical innovation (the set pieces, taking on the physical characteristics of the characters is pretty astounding), not to mention the recognition deserved based on its quality as a piece of art. Dr. Caligari is definitely a pre-cursor to a lot of horror and suspense films, so if that genre interests you, you should definitely take a look.