I don’t think I have ever truly appreciated silent cinema. Not fully, anyway. I think the first two silent films I ever watched were Metropolis (1927) which was great and The Birth of a Nation (1915) which of course wasn’t but they both were very long. Very, very long. So, when I decided to put The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on my list for this year the run time was a welcome change.
When venturing into a whole new form of cinema, even an old one, should be taken with some careful planning. I would love more cinema goers to watch more Bollywood films, but choose poorly and I could quite easily turn them off for good. Choose well, and I might have teased a new Bollywood fan from out of the closet.
When venturing into the world of silent cinema, I should have begun with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At a 74 minute run time, it’s tiddly in length but I think that allows the viewer the opportunity to really get into the film without looking at their watch or, most likely, their phone. It’s considered quintessential viewing for the German Expressionist era which is the name given to the selection of dark, oblique films from Germany in the silent era.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari follows the story of Francis, a young man, who tells the story of an event in his past. At a town fair, a crazed mad scientist-looking gentleman arrives and is in possession of a somnambulist (a sleepwalker to you and me). During a display, Dr. Caligari tells the audience to ask the somnambulist a question as he can answer anything. A man, Francis’ friend, asks how long will he live and the somnambulist answers until dawn. Unsurprisingly, the man is killed the next morning and Francis’ investigations spiral from there.
I wouldn’t like to ruin the ending, as for 74 minutes long the film twists and turns many more times than I would imagine.
It’s a truly fascinating and mesmerizing film. You can tell the immediate influence this film had on film noir. The use of light, shadows, and foreboding windows especially reminds me of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
The most surprising thing watching this film is that I became much more aware of the visual trickery and techniques that silent cinema used for storytelling. The scenery and flashbacks are harnessed effortlessly through the use of colour. Transitioning from scene to scene using some kind of keyhole technique (where one scene disappears through a circular frame in one corner and in another corner of the frame the next scene grows into a flashback) is pure genius. Even the title cards aren’t what I would expect from a silent film. I expected them to be uniform and have little room for creativity and energy, but this is not the case.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would be a fantastic introduction into silent cinema as it immortalizes just how the absence of dialogue can be advantageous and for the good of the film. It allows for fantastic, surreal visuals that tell just as much of the story as the characters do and I highly recommend a viewing.
Have you seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!