Re: The Crypt of Cross
And in the Beginning, There Was Cesare...
Forget what you think you know about the humble beginnings of horror if all you think is that Lon Chaney Sr. was the first mastermind that perfected the chilling craft of terrifying his audience with multiple macabre offerings. Mr. Chaney was not the first one to step from the shadows and expose our greatest fears. That honor belongs to German thespian Conrad Veidt. This was a man who inspired Bob Kane to create one of the most lasting villains in the D.C. comics universe. This was a man who inspired countless imitators across the entire globe. This was a man who took his profession seriously, infusing passion in the characters he brought to life and terror in the hearts of movie buffs everywhere. Through it all, the character he was best remembered for was the first real movie monster ever created: Cesare.
Released on February 26th of 1920, the potential for using fear as a form of entertainment was fully realized. Developing a loyal, frenzied, almost cultist following over the years, director Robert Weine seemed to sense the power emanating from the work that had been dropped into his lap; a gift from the celluloid Gods (originally the directorial position had belonged to Fritz Lang). It was clear that Weine poured his heart and soul into every frame of "Caligari", knowing that to make it succeed...he had to make it a part of himself. He had to invent the mold before it could be shattered; perhaps the hardest task in all of cinema. He had already begun working on the mold with "Furcht" three years prior, however he sought - and attained - perfection with "Caligari". Sadly, "Furcht" is not a part of my collection, so it will not be reviewed herein (thems the breaks, to coin a phrase).
Our story for this film is located in Holstenwall, told in flashbacks by Franzis (Friedrich Feher) to an elder gentleman while sitting on what appears to be a park bench and presented in six separate acts. Relating a tale of horror, Franzis tells of the strange Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who took part in the local fair with his attraction Cesare (Veidt), the somnambulist. Naturally there's more to the tale than that. Apparently, Caligari uses the somnambulist to kill those who cross him or those whose death would benefit his carnival demonstration; when woken, Cesare supposedly can see into the past or "predict" the future (in actuality only predicting those he would murder). The deepening tale of sanity-shattering terror takes a startling twist when it is revealed that Dr. Caligari is really the director of an insane asylum and that Cesare was a patient he had waited ages to acquire. Of course, the final reversal is perhaps one of the finest in horror history, begging the question: was it actually the inmate running the asylum?
German horror has frequently relied more on minimalism than on gusto and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is no exception. Veidt manages to do so much with what little he is given. From the first moment we view him, he is every ounce as terrifying as a Freddy Krueger or a Michael Myers. Watch closely his abduction of Jane (Lil Dagover), the woman Franzis loves, and tell me Cesare isn't as horrifyingly villainous as Hannibal Lecter was when he attacked the police and escaped the confines of his Tennessee detention cell in "The Silence of the Lambs". This feat is made more astonishing by the limited means of Veidt's time. Skeletal thin, Veidt moves like the darkness itself, giving form to fears once shapeless before his presence graced the silver screen. Physically, he was also an obvious inspiration for Tim Burton's title character in "Edward Scissorhands" seventy years later.
If it were just Conrad who made this film worth watching though, it would never have attained the status it has today. No, there were many more masterful performances surrounding Veidt's. Krauss, for instance. His interpretation of Caligari is one of epic proportions, having the ability to say more with his evil incarnate eyes than almost any other silent actor of the age. Two of his most enigmatic sequences involve his interrogation after Franzis obtains a police warrant to investigate the somnambulist and the embodiment of Caligari's ever-increasing madness, discovered through entries in his personal diary, which are displayed perfectly against an abstract backdrop of cardboard cut out trees and dysmorphic words.
Another of the film's attributes is the wonderful visual presentation itself. From the magnificent color tinting to the exaggerated angles of the set design to the somber usage of shadows, the filmmakers knew what they were doing and achieved all of their goals. Check out the variants in the murder of Franzis's friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski): the rising shadow on the wall...the clutching hands half in darkness, half in light...forefathers of countless thematic imitators over the subsequent decades. Finally, I've often heard people decry the amplified movements and facial gestures of the performers in silent films. While there have been notable occurrences of this, I have never found "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to suffer from these implied detriments. Rather, these actors seem to have fluidic movements that define their intentions instead of enforcing them upon the viewer. All in all, this film is truly the beginning of an era. While horror would evolve and expand over the pursuant century, the genre would forever be indebted to this visionary patriarch.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is not rated; however it contains very mild violence. This film has a running time of seventy-four minutes and was released on February 26th, 1920 in Berlin, Germany. I give this film iiii½ out of iiiii.
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© Berringer Cross Ltd. 2011
Last edited by Berringer; 11-29-2011 at 12:32 AM.