THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI directed by Robert Wiene (Germany, 1920)

Dr Caligari and Cesare the somnambulist

Cesare seizes the maiden.

One of the great things about You Tube and other online streaming sites is that cinema history is always just a click away.

Most silent classics are freely available, including this groundbreaking and highly influential work. I’ve seen so many clips and stills from it but I don’t ever remember watching it in its entirety.

This film is important because it launched the German expressionist film movement and established a stylised look that became blueprint for countless noir movies.

Made in just three weeks, the stylised jagged sets and dramatic lighting effects make this a highly theatrical production. It lays waste any notion that cinema has to contain reassuring messages or serve any higher moral purpose.

It is billed as a horror film, not because it contains any gory scenes but because it displays the warped psychology of a vivid nightmare.

Obviously some of the effects look tame now but its depiction of a distorted reality is a narrative motif that never goes out of date.

Madness is the theme and it leaves the audience guessing as who is sane and who is crazy. Dr Caligari’s obsession with somnambulism makes him the archetype barking doctor who has lost sight of any ethical principles.

He wants to see how far and manipulate the sleepwalker Cesare by getting him to commit murder. The zombie like figure carries out the doctor’s dastardly instructions but is unable to plunge the knife into the obligatory ethereal maiden and carries her off instead. He appears to die leaving her to wander around in a trance like an elegant ghost.

The story is told by Francis, who initially seems like a mere observer of these strange happenings but at the end it appears equally deranged too and confined to a straitjacket.

Caligari doesn’t just remain at liberty but winds up in charge of the asylum which goes to prove it’s a very very mad world.

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