The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Review (1920)
"The Cabinet of Dr Caligari", UFA GmbH, 1920
For a film over 100 years of age, "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" feels remarkably alive. For a film sold on the experience the design brings, encompassing a weird and wonderful alien-like world, Wiene understood its strengths, using the practical boundaries of the technology to instead deepen the rabbit hole of this archetypal pioneer of the psychological thriller genre. Although its approach to conjuring drama may be jolting for some audiences, it's peculiarly wonky and surprisingly despondent personality is still something to behold.
I was enamoured by just how incredibly refined and detailed everything felt, from the dramatically expressive performances to even the camerawork, which is surprisingly unorthodox in comparison to the strict theatre-like compositions of its contemporaries. It exceeds in transporting (even contemporary) audiences to a uniquely dark and uncomfortable place where the line between reality and the character's manic perception of reality is blurred, which I believe whole-heartedly warrants the film's continued praise as forward-thinking. This is shaped by an interesting premise which is used to full effect, creating necessary urgency to not only forward the story in a conventional sense, but to also propel the idea of prophecy, posing interesting questions which are manifested in the story in a creative and (again, surprisingly) harrowing way. Although these statements of morality that encourage examination of the relationship between the tyrant and the seer are somewhat brushed over by how obtuse the flow of the narrative feels, it anchors an admirably surreal sense of pacing. This enables the writing to bleed into a variety of different genres in an oddly contemplative way, showcasing an incredible amount of finesse, which, this early into the art of movie-making, help set the president as to how boundary-less the heart of this medium of art really is. There's also something to be said as to how the peculiarly angular set design have stood the test of time; If anything, the passage of time has only harnessed tighter the other-worldly nature of the pure artistry constantly on display here, giving the en-somble-like quality of the characters, motives and narrative threads a rugged and dishevelled quality that is hard to not stop and ponder over.
Saying that, It's timeless cleverness only goes so far. As fully-realised as the film's ambition panned out, the twist ending, as praiseworthy as it is, only provides one instance of the supposedly dense look into the notion of perception and the audience's relationship to it. As conscious as the idea of identity is explored, right down to the idea of storytelling itself, there is so much more space that perhaps a modern adaption of the film may choose to explore.
Nevertheless, there is something incredibly personal and pure about the experience of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It follows through on its ideas and striking imagery in a way that can only come from a time of creative unrest that the 1920s in fact were. As snobbish as it is to align myself to popular critical opinion of a film made over 100 years ago, it is, at the very least, a memorable experience that continues to remind audiences the platform of cinema as an expansive and eccentric art form.