From the few that I’ve seen, I’m happy to make the sweeping statement that German silent films were perhaps the best of all. There is some basis for such an opinion, what with Nosferatu, Metropolis, Faust and The Last Laugh all setting the standard for what could be done with such an early era of cinema. Telling stories through the power of emotive performances, visual flair and the odd bit of dialogue, this silent-era offered up innovative techniques and stylistic choices that hold up a century after their releases. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in particular, strikes me as an integral, important moment in this period, not just on a technical level, but a period of storytelling that focused on the horrors of mysterious or unknown strangers.
Out titular doctor is that very stranger, and as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recalls his memories of his encounter with Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), director Robert Wiene infuses tension in a frighteningly strong manner. Much of the charm of this film comes from its detail and set design. Grandiose scenery adds layers to a story set on capturing the horrifying incidents and experiments of a strange and mysterious doctor. It feels rather unique, the maddening script a product of pacifists reeling from the end of the First World War. Their trials, and sickened tribulations, direct a venomous script, one that wishes to tackle authority and those in power. The film showcases this rather well, and a consistent narrative pace is drawn up to consider their aggression, whilst also surmising various characteristics of its cast.
The jagged, twisted sets that adorn the film are mesmerising, the performances that are placed in front of them are stunning, to say the least. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a fascinating watch, feeling like it’s entirely ahead of its time. Krauss’ appearance as the maddened, eponymous doctor is an enthralling performance. A mind aggressively shaken by horrors, greed, and power; it makes for a staple piece of the thrills to be found within. A surprising number of chilling moments are scattered throughout, holding up a century on from their initial conception. It’s no small feat, and there’s rarely a poor moment throughout.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does indeed set the bar for silent films. It’s such a solid, impressive piece of work from the early years of film, when it was still finding its footing and innovation was found around every corner. Wiene’s direction sheds light on some memorable performances, Krauss’ titular role explodes in eye-catching fashion. It’s the film that shifted me from respect for silent films to absolutely loving the majority of them, their revolutionary fashion and impact on the world of film is a pleasure to watch, and nowhere is it more consistent than in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.