Archive for November, 2007

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

November 22, 2007 2 comments

I decided to delay this post by a day or two because a lot of reviews claim that this movie is disturbing in a very subtle manner. I will agree with them. You will have dreams about this movie, this I promise. Nothing nightmarish, but very, very bizzare ones. Released in 1920, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (German : Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari) is a groundbreaking German silent film, one of the earliest films in both the Expressionist and horror genres. What stands out is the absolute adherence to the Expressionist movement – the brilliant use of set design and light to convey emotion, the heavy make-up, and the dark storyline. The set design is brilliant, simply brilliant, a combination of absurd geometrical shapes all combining to create a very disturbing effect. The heavy and ghastly-looking make-up, even on the hero, adds to the effect. Slanting, narrow slits for windows, buildings that loom out of nowhere, government officials on absurdly high tables and chairs…… the artwork has an almost psychedelic air to it. Watch it for the sets if for nothing else, and I am sure only morons of the highest order will face such an eventuality.


The movie opens with in the form of a flashback (one of the earliest examples of this method), where the narrator Francis takes you back to a fair in the tiny German mountain town of Holstenwall, to which he is taken by his friend Alan. The queer Dr. Caligari is first seen at the town clerk’s ofice, applying for a permit to display a somnambulist at the fair. It is granted, after the usual red-tapism, probably shown by the high stool the clerk sits on. Mysteriously, he is found dead in a short time.

Dr. Caligari displays Cesare the somnambulist, reportedly asleep for 23 years and endowed with powers of prophecy. He can answer any question posed to him, Dr. Caligari brags. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare replies that Alan won’t live past dawn the next day. True to the prophecy, Alan is murdered that night. A shocked Francis decides to investigate the issue himself.

That very night, a man is caught while trying to enter an old woman’s house, intending to murder her. Newspapers proclaim that the double-murderer has been nabbed. Meanwhile, Francis and Dr. Olsen (his fiancee Jane’s father) are questioning Dr. Caligari outside his little cabin. Upon hearing of the new development, they rush to the police station, where the supposed murderer is being interrogated. He confesses that he wanted to murder the old lady, but he thought that it would be blamed on the mysterious double-murderer. He himself had nothing to do with those murders.

Meanwhile, Dr. Olsen’s long absence starts to worry his daughter Jane, who goes off in search of him. She wanders into the fair grounds, and encounters Dr. Caligari, who takes her to Cesare. She is frightened, and runs off.

The following night, Francis decides to snoop on Dr. Caligari once again. He positions himself outside Dr. Caligari’s window, where he is able to see Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Oddly, we then see Cesare creeping up to Jane, who is sleeping in her bed. He originally wants to kill her, but relents after her beauty captivates him, and he merely kidnaps her. Jane’s screaming awakens the household, and soon a mob of townspeople are chasing Cesare through the town. A disoriented Cesare drops Jane, stumbles on, and falls to his death.

When Francis returns, he is told that Cesare tried to kidnap Jane. Francis is surprised, because he has been snooping on Dr. Caligari and Cesare was asleep for hours. Upon hearing this, Dr. Olsen and Francis run to the police station, suspecting that the “murderer” has escaped. He is revealed to be safe within his cell. They then rush to Dr. Caligari’s cabin, where it turns out that the Cesare Francis had been watching was actually a dummy. In the commotion, Dr. Caligari escapes and is chased by Francis; both end up at the local mental asylum, and it is revealed that Dr. Caligari is the director of the asylum.

When Dr. Caligari is asleep, his office is searched, and a number of details tumble out. It turns out that the director fantasises himself to be Dr. Caligari, an 18th-century travelling “doctor” who exhibited a somnambulist, and then used him as a tool to commit murder. When confronted with the corpse of Cesare, the director breaks down, and his mania is revealed.

At this point, the scene shifts back to the present, with Francis and his companion in the same asylum. In a twist to the ending, it turns out that Francis is insane, and the entire story is merely his fantasy. It ends with the same director of the mental asylum claiming he knows what afflicts Francis and that he can be cured.


The plot is full of suspense at all times, and the movie is way ahead for it’s time. Some of the most brilliant artwork is seen in Alan’s room, the depiction of the town at night, the police station, and in the mental asylum, especially the director’s room and the cell where they put Dr. Caligari and Francis. One of the best uses of light i found in the film was when the just-nabbed murderer is interrogated at the police station. Pure genius. The approach to the director’s room in the asylum, and the room itself convey a sense of madness rarely seen.

Also, the concept of “criminal appearance”, which had taken hold in Victorian times is seen in depictions of criminals here, and in movies from around the same timespan, culminating in blatant racial profiling in cinema from the Third Reich.

All in all, a masterpiece from the silent-era. I rate it 9/10.

Currently reading: Divina Commedia: Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1321); Snow (Orhan Pamuk, 2006)

Music: Rosetta: The Galilean Satellites (2005).

Categories: Cinema, Weimar Republic


November 16, 2007 Leave a comment

Set in Berlin under the Weimar Republic, M is widely regarded as one of the best examples of German Expressionist cinema, and among the high points of director Fritz Lang’s career. The movie is said to be loosely based on serial killer Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf, though this is denied by Lang himself. Even so, Kürten’s 1929 “exploits” must have been fresh enough in public memory at the time of the film’s release (1931) to fuel speculation in the minds of the audience.

One of the most notable aspects of the movie is the brilliant use of lighting to convey intense emotion, especially in the case of the serial killer M/Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre, more famous as Ugarte in Casablanca). The movie was also one of the first to use Leitmotifs to add intensity to the film’s score, particular background scores to highlight certain events/characters in the movie, especially notable being the whistling of Edvard Grieg’s In The Hall of The Mountain King every time the murderer makes his entry. Peter Lorre’s passionate speech at the end was picked up by Joseph Goebbels for the famous Nazi propaganda movie Die Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), since both Lang and Lorre were Jewish, and since it supposedly pointed to the inherent criminal nature of all Jews.


The movie opens on the streets of Berlin with children singing an “awful song” about a”child murderer” (euphemism for paedophile). Enter Lorre, whom we see buying a balloon from a blind fellow and gives it to a little girl, Elsie Beckmann, all the while whistling In the Hall of the Mountain King. In the next few scenes, we see Frau Beckmann growing anxious because Elsie has not returned, following which we see the balloon that Beckert (Peter Lorre) bought for Elsie tangled in power lines.

Public outrage follows over the murder, with posters proclaiming it to me the latest in a series of unsolved murders. The city’s population is on the verge of hysteria, with wild accusations being thrown about at anyone who was found to be in the vicinity of a child. The police efforts are further thwarted by exaggerated and contradicting testimonies from “witnesses”, and hundreds of clues, mostly leading to dead ends. Even worse, the killings appear to be completely random, with no pattern to be found. The police are constantly on a state of high alert, with the “usual suspects” rounded up in raids and checks on lower-class neighbourhoods and “seedy” joints. The Berlin mafia decides that this level of police activity is sure to drive them out of business (plus they do not want to be thrown into the same category as the child killer), so they decide to try and catch M themselves. The Beggars’ Union is called in to provide ground-level surveillance of any suspicious activity.

A breakthrough occurs when the same blind balloon salesman hears M whistling again. He tells another watcher, who sees M with another child and tails him, putting a chalk-mark of “M” on Lorre’s coat. Lorre attempts to get rid of the “M” mark when he sees it, then notices people following him. He tries to hide in an office building, and one of his followers tips off the mafia. The criminals organise a break-in and manage to nab M, but one of them is nabbed by the police and, upon being interrogated, reveals the entire plan to nab M.

The criminals take M to an abandoned distillery, where a kangaroo court is held. Despite M’s passionate defense, he is condemned to death. The police manage to arrive just in time to stop M from being lynched. The movie ends with a court of law sentencing M.


I didn’t really get the end. The sentence is not passed, though Wikipedia says that society, not M, is the real murderer here. Maybe this has to do with mafia boss Schranker condemning M to death, when he himself is wanted for 3 murders, for which his justification is, at best, shaky. Another bit I didn’t get is the 30-odd second shot of Inspector Lohmann talking on the phone, while the camera is below his desk, and we are looking up his pants. Really, really weird.

A Beggars’ Union. Er…..what?

Despite Lang claiming no influence of Peter Kürten upon Peter Lorre’s character, there is a scene were Lohmann mentions the serial killers Fritz Haarmann and Karl Grossmann. I really liked Lorre’s speech at the end, an attempt at exploring the mind of a deviant when psychiatry is just beginning to gain some ground. It had shades of DeQuincey in it, from his work Confessions of an English Opium-eater, an attempt at exploring drug-use, addiction and substance-abuse when it wasn’t really understood.

All in all, a bloody good movie. I give it 8.5 on 10.

Look up Peter Kürten, Fritz Haarmann and Karl Grossmann on the Crime Library site,

I’m downloading The Eternal Jew, I’m very curious now.

Currently reading: Divina Commedia : Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1321)

Music: Kiuas : The Spirit of Ukko (2005)

Categories: Cinema, Weimar Republic