Take 3: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Review

January’s theme for MovieRob’s Genre Grandeur is ‘Unreliable Narrator Movies’. I will admit this round of the blogathon wasn’t easy to find movies for, as most of the films that were continuously recommended were those I’d already seen. However, I discovered a movie that I had never even heard of on a list from IMDB. That film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a title from 1920! Silent movies and those from the ‘20s are not often covered on 18 Cinema Lane. This is due to the availability of the films themselves. Fortunately, I was able to rent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as that is one of the reasons why I selected it for this blogathon. I was also curious to see who the unreliable narrator was. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sounded like an intriguing start to Genre Grandeur!

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster created by Decla-Bioscop.

Things I liked about the film:

The acting: As I have said before, acting performances in silent films rely on facial expressions and body language. The actors in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari utilize these acting techniques, as they represent one way to help the audience understand what is happening in the story. Lil Dagover gave a very expressive performance as a character named Jane! When one of her friends, Francis, tells her his friend, Alan, has died, horror and surprise wash over her face. In another scene, when Francis and Jane’s father are talking about a man named Cesare, fear can be seen in Jane’s eyes. This specific behavior tells the audience Jane is afraid of Cesare. The lead actor, Friedrich Fehér, gave an expressive performance as well! While portraying his character, Francis, Friedrich displayed a variety of emotions. A scene where Francis visits a police station serves as a perfect example, as he fearfully informs the police who is likely causing the murders throughout his neighborhood. For an earlier scene, his overall demeanor was much different, as Francis introduces his story as a joyful man with a positive outlook on life. As the titular character, Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss gave a performance that comes across as unsettling. With wide eyes and exaggerated expressions, Werner appears excited whenever he’s presenting his sideshow act to his audience. Dr. Caligari’s animated demeanor truly makes up for the lack of dialogue!

The title cards: A common staple in silent films is the use of title cards. This concept is incorporated into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to help the audience understand what the characters are trying to say. Not only is this effectively shown, but we can also see other articles that the characters are given. Toward the beginning of the film, Francis and his friend, Alan, receive a flyer for an upcoming fair. In one shot, the text on this flyer is enlarged, revealing an advertisement for the fair itself. When Francis is figuring out Dr. Caligari’s true identity, he looks through books found in the doctor’s office. As he finds more clues, the audience is shown journal entries from Dr. Caligari himself. The inclusion of these articles makes the overall viewing experience more engaging!

The mystery: Throughout the film, Francis is attempting to solve the mystery surrounding a collection of murders in his neighborhood. In his efforts, he recruits the help of the local police and gathers clues. Out of all the silent films I’ve seen before, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has a pretty unique concept, as it is a mystery. This stands out from movies of this nature I have previously seen and/or reviewed, as those stories were either comedies, dramas, or horror. I also like how the audience gets to experience the story’s events alongside Francis. Even though pieces of the mystery are revealed as the film goes on, it allows the audience a chance to share an experience with the protagonist.

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What I didn’t like about the film:

The run-time: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a little over an hour. Because of this, there were scenes throughout the movie that feel like “filler”. When the fair comes to town, scenes where people are walking around the fairgrounds for about a minute to two minutes each are shown. These scenes add up to a collection of moments that are there to satisfy the film’s run-time. In my opinion, this movie did not need to be over an hour. If the “filler” scenes had been shortened or removed, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could have been a forty- or fifty-minute short film.

An inconsistent use of title cards: While I appreciate the use of title cards in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I feel its inclusion should have been more consistent. There were stretches of time where title cards were not used, watching as characters spoke with no form of dialogue. This caused confusion when certain scenarios happened on-screen. One of them was a flashback involving Dr. Caligari. Since there were no title cards indicating this was a flashback, it was a confusing transition from one scene to the next. Even the plot twist was confusing, as there was no clear indication, through title cards, that it was a separate component to Francis’ story. This made the overall movie less entertaining.

Some of the musical choices: Music plays a significant role in silent films, as it sets the stage for a particular scene’s tone. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, however, there were a few scenes where the musical choices did not fit within a scene. When Francis is first introduced in the movie, as he is talking to a man sitting next to him, it sounded like there were two pieces of music playing at once. It made the scene itself feel jarring. Later in the film, when Francis goes to visit Dr. Caligari at his office, music that sounded more joyful than that scene called for could be heard. The piece of music itself felt out of place in that specific scene.

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My overall impression:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a good example of how far cinema has come. Silent films show us how this particular entertainment medium has evolved over time. Even though I respect the movie for what it brought to the table, the overall project was weaker than it should have been. I found The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be more confusing than entertaining. This was caused by some of the musical choices and the inconsistent use of title cards. The limited amount of title cards prevented the reveal of the unreliable narrator from being surprising. Because of the film’s run-time, I felt tired by the length of the story. In fact, there were times where I felt taking a nap. Despite these flaws, I am glad I chose this movie for the blogathon! As I said in the introduction, silent films and those from the ‘20s are not often written about on my blog. Therefore, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari joins 18 Cinema Lane’s growing list of movie reviews!

Overall score: 6 out of 10

Have you ever a silent film? If so, what was your viewing experience? Please tell me in the comment section!

Have fun at the movies!

Sally Silverscreen

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