It is about two years ago I saw the early movies on the list. Some of the details fade with time and a rosy patina settles on the memory making the movies seem better or less poor than they were back when I saw them. One of those movies I remember particularly fondly is Dr. Caligari. Was I deceiving myself or is it really as good as I remember? I decided to see it again just to find out and also to be better equipped to write my commentary.
I was not mistaken. Dr. Caligari is exactly as good as I remember. Maybe even better.
If you have not seen Dr. Caligari stop reading this. Go treat yourself with the doctor and then come back and tell me if I am totally wrong. The rest of this commentary will be a big time spoiler if you have not seen it.
In the small town of Holstenwall the mysterious Dr. Caligari is setting up his sideshow for the local fair. His show features a somnambulist whom he claims has been asleep for 23 years but will wake up upon request and answer questions on the past and the future, on life and, as we will find out, death.
Francis and his friend are in love with the same girl. They go to the fair and visit Dr. Caligari’s sideshow. The friend asks Cesare, the somnambulist, how long he has yet to live and the pale, ghostly Cesare tell him that he has until the early morning. Already one murder has been committed and during the night Francis friend dies as well.
Francis is convinced that Dr. Caligari is behind this and embarks on a crusade to bring down Dr. Caligari. When his girlfriend is attacked by the somnambulist, Francis is keeping watch on Dr. Caligari in his trailer where Cesare is sleeping in his box. It turns out though that it is not Cesare after all in the box but a doll. Dr. Caligari flees with Francis on his trail and ends up at a mental asylum.
Francis finds out that Dr. Caligari is in fact the director of the asylum, who wants to recreate an old Italian story of a Dr. Caligari who travelled around with a somnambulist. In the process the director becomes so obsessed with the idea that he becomes Dr. Caligari.
At this point we return to the beginning where Francis is telling this entire story to a friend at the asylum and we find that many of the characters of the story are in fact patients here including Cesare and the girlfriend. Seeing the director Francis gets very excited, shouting that this is Dr. Caligari. The staff fixate him and take him to a cell where the director turns to the camera and tells us that now that he knows that Francis thinks the director is Dr. Caligari, he knows how to cure him.
The story Francis has been telling is apparently fiction and he is a patient himself. That much is clear. The rest leads itself to interpretation. We have seen this twist in later films and I wonder if this is not the earliest example. A film like “The usual suspects” comes to my mind. What is really the truth?
“Dr. Caligari” is very expressionistic and full of symbols. Buildings are caricatures with odd angles and disturbing shapes. Officials are sitting on very high chairs talking down to people. The somnambulist is a study in itself in light and shadow so gloomy that I find him spookier than any other character I have seen in early cinema.
So, is Cesare a dark side of Francis who kills his rival to the girl and tries to take the girl away? Is Dr. Caligari a controlling voice, an authority in Francis who tells him to do things? Things another part of Francis does not want to do? Is the entire story just a fiction made up by Francis using characters around for some diabolical inner struggle he is fighting? Some deep personality disorder?
I cannot say for sure and that means that I go around thinking and marveling over this story for a long time.
This is a gem and it told me very early on this 1001 movie quest that it is a worthwhile undertaking.