Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Robet Wiene's 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari', 1920

This, along with Metropolis, was one of the films I've wanted to watch for years, literally since sixth form. It's so fundamental to cinema that it's a little sad that I've only just seen it but at least now I have I'm aware of the huge amounts of influences it's had.  One I can think of is the influence he must have had on Tim Burton. Some examples are that all the characters have dark sunken eyes and pale faces, black and white stripes are on the characters and scenery, there's exaggerated and angular sets, to name just a few really. I'm a massive fan of his work and I'm not sure if perhaps he's taken a little more than influence from this film and others like it for his work to be really called his. That said, I have only just seen it so it could just be that I'm a late comer to the party and everyone already knows this...

Anyway, the film was great!  It did feel perhaps a little too long in parts but it was visually fantastic and the way the sets were designed at such claustrophobic angles really made it look like something that had stepped out of an insane persons mind.  Which, considering its twist at the end, makes perfect sense.  From the point on the production design it's completely taken over the way this film is seen.  The sets that are very triangular and the detail is almost cartoon-like due to their block use of black with little minute detail, which is typical of German expressionism.  It isn't only the film that was really controlled by the production design but the marketing campaign too.  On the posters advertising the film were the words "You must become Caligari", a line taken directly from the script but with no mention of the film's actual title. This is an incredibly contemporary method of advertisement and considering the words were combined with a vortical spiral the technique can be seen as hypnotic, convincing the viewer to do something. Noah William Isenberg believes that "the almost coercive imperative "You must" foregrounded and simultaneously enacted the "suggestive" or "hypnotic" power of advertising which was still a fairly new mode of shaping social behaviour".

Not only were the sets useful in portraying the mind set of the characters, but so were the shadows that were used.  In cinema, especially in this film, shadows are used to portray the innermost thoughts or desires of the character it's attached to.  In the image above the shadow is much more exaggerated than the character it's portraying, it's even been painted on with much bigger proportions than that of the character.  The character has his hands clenched to his chest whereas the hand of the shadow is reaching further out, perhaps because his arthritic hands can't do what his mind wants the shadow is portraying it. Victor Ieronim Stoichiţă said that "It is as though the camera was able to plunge into the person's mind 
metaphorical way of portraying the characters isn't only a money saver but it's much more visually engaging
than any dialogue could've been.

After watching the film, despite some of it having aged a little poorly, like the editing for example, it's such a 
visually stunning piece of film that I still found it to be really unsettling.  The make-up, though it was meant to be 
quite contrasting so the camera could pick it up, made everyone look inhuman, not just the villains of the film.  
As David Parkinson from Empire Online said "The eccentric imagery, the creepy acting, the dark deeds and the ambiguous ending all create a lingering sense of unease." I still can't believe that something with so much visual prowess is almost a century old! How crazy is that?! On that note though, on to Metropolis...

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