Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1919)

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) – 1919

Director – Robert Wiene

Starring – Werner Krauss, Conrad Viedt, and Frederich Feher

We’ve all been through the situation in which a movie that we missed gets watched by everyone else.  Everyone else loves the film and proceeds to tell us about it and how good it is.  It’s at this point that we go to see said film, and lo and behold, it’s disappointing.  For one reason or another it doesn’t stack up or meet our expectations.  I think we can all agree that this sucks.

There is a similar scenario that I’ve encountered a few times, where the extremely popular film gets talked up to such a degree that it starts getting boring again.  We get sick of hearing about it, it might come from a certain time frame that doesn’t necessarily interest us, doesn’t have sound, or whatever.  Long story short, we are disappointed going INTO the film.  Despite the fact that the glowing reviews haven’t changed, they’ve been negated by our own shitty attitude.  Going into a movie this way, makes it seem pretty good, or if you’re lucky like I was with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it ends up being pretty great.

Few movies have had as much of a lasting impact, been as visually striking, impacting and influential as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  The tone is set up from the start, and it continues to bleed menace and unease for the rest of its compact 80 minute run time.  The premise, the makeup and most of all the set pieces serve to keep the tone of the film from faltering or the pace from slowing down, and all of these elements work together to enhance something that could have easily been over-rated.

The story is one that is familiar to modern movie audiences, yet it is not one that is expected.  I have to be careful when explaining it to not give too much away, but suffice to say, a strange character comes to town, Dr. Caligari, a somnambulist, with large claims of hypnotism, and mystery (now I’m still a little unclear whether the term somnambulist refers to Dr. Caligari himself or to his perpetually sleeping minion Cesare).  That very night a horrible murder occurs, and by chance the victim happens to be someone who had a run in with Dr. Caligari earlier on in the story.  The show goes on and the murders continue, until someone makes the connection, and starts to probe a little further into the past of this Caligari character.

In the film’s historical time frame, acting was a loose term at best that was really more a study of posing and moving ones eyes, but it is put to good use here as each actor manages to convey a fair amount of terror and suspicion all through their looks.  The most successful of these performances is turned in by Werner Krauss, as the good doctor himself.  A fair amount of his success is due to his makeup and to the set pieces, both of which accentuate the unsettling nature of his character’s devious nature.  Caligari slinks around all sneers and grimaces, perpetuating the fear and discomfort of the audience, all without the convenience of dialogue.  Similarly effective is the gaunt haunted character Cesare, Caligari’s minion, though he is really more of a tool of menace that the doctor wields than a character in his own right.

The one drawback I can point to as something that took me out of the story, was the speed at which the subtitles delivered the necessary information.  They operated at a snail’s pace, and stayed up on-screen way too long.  I suppose that can be chalked up to the fact that at the time it was made, film was a newer art form, and as such was subject to the learning curve just like everything else.  Though it explains things, being able to read the cue card 5-8 times through before they changed doesn’t make it any less distracting during what is otherwise a rather tense narrative.

All in all, I would definitely champion this film to be one of the 1001 films one should make a point of seeing before they die.  It belongs on this list as an example of history, technical innovation (the set pieces, taking on the physical characteristics of the characters is pretty astounding), not to mention the recognition deserved based on its quality as a piece of art.  Dr. Caligari is definitely a pre-cursor to a lot of horror and suspense films, so if that genre interests you, you should definitely take a look.

“I’m going to hypnotize your ass…in German!”  –  Ashley

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line – 1998

Director – Terrence Malick

Starring – Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson

Terrence Malick’s floating, lyrical film about the battle of Guadalcanal in World War 2, avoids the clichés of most other big war epics.  Where other films seek to wow the audience with man’s inhumanity to other men, The Thin Red Line, instead seeks to show man’s absolute humanity.  For good or for ill soldiers are people, they get scared, their motivations are often impure, and they can be tremendously courageous.  Where a lot of other war films might dwell on the violence and carnage, Malick aims his camera towards the calm, and the natural stillness of the battlefield.  That is not to say their isn’t a fair share of action or death, it is after all a war film, about World War 2 in the Pacific, but it isn’t this action and cruelty that makes the soldiers great, it is their compassion, their courage, and their honor.

There is no hard and fast story in this film.  Instead we have a  general idea of the goals of the soldiers as we lilt back and forth between the men in this company learning about how each man deals with his circumstances.  We learn about each man not so much through back story, but through occasional inner monologue, and how they interact with the other men.  There really isn’t a main character, although the closest thing to it would be Jim Caviezel’s character, Private Witt.  The film opens with Private Witt living on an island in the South Pacific, after having gone AWOL, and follows his subsequent recapture, punishment, and re-stationing as a medic during the battle.  While he is not necessarily the main character at all times, he does touch the lives of each of the soldiers featured in the film, most heavily on Sgt. Welsh, played with surprising restraint by Sean Penn.

Nature plays a big role in this film, so much so that it shows just how much the soldiers and their war, are out-of-place here.  This concentration on nature provides some similarities to the films of Werner Herzog, in which nature is heavily featured and often plays a very central role in the story.  While not as overt as a Herzog film, the surroundings in The Thin Red Line do provide a visual and a metaphorical juxtaposition to the action.  Soldiers die in unspeakably beautiful surroundings and explosions and gun fire are the only things that drown out the roar of the river and a the call of the wildlife.

When the two sides finally see each other face to face it becomes obvious how similar they are, despite their opposing view points.  Both are made up of people who are scared, opportunistic, and brave.  The war makers are sitting in their respective countries, comfortable, and safe, while the war is being waged by common people with the least to gain and the most to lose.

By and large I really liked this film, aside from the compelling visuals, the acting and story telling managed to compliment the cinematography and avoid being too heavy-handed or preachy.  The only weak elements in this film, in my opinion are the music, and the poetic inner monologue.  The film, which runs at just under 3 hours, has the tendency to feel sluggish and repetitive, not because of the situations, not because of the lack of action, but because of the score, and the narration.  This semi-dramatic undercurrent of music swells at just the right time when the emotionally confused soldier has just seen the beauty of this land destroyed by war. 

Once the music swells, we get yet another semi vague, flowing, pondering on the nature of perception.  These elements work just fine to a certain degree, but ultimately are used far too often to inspire emotion, or to describe the absurdity of the conflict.  A huge teaching in film is, show, don’t tell.  What could be inferred into this statement also, is “Don’t do both.”  There are more than enough times where we understand exactly what we are supposed to, but the music swells and the narration comes in any way.  These are our cues that we are supposed to be walking away with some larger message, and frankly I didn’t need them.

This film was a quite refreshing despite its slight flaws.  It is rare that you come away from a war film that isn’t an actioneer type film with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, feeling uplifted and generally positive.  War films can be horrific, and disquieting, and contemplative, but The Thin Red Line shows that they can also be a cathartic, teaching experience, with more to offer than they take away.  Well done Mr. Malick.

Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (AKA: Aguirre, The Wrath of God) (1972)

AguirreTheWrathOfGod

Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (AKA: Aguirre, The Wrath of God) – 1972

Director – Werner Herzog

Starring – Klaus Kinski, Del Negro, and Peter Berling

So the story goes, that when actor Klaus Kinski announced that he was going to quit and leave this film, director Werner Herzog threatened to shoot him dead and then turn the gun on himself.  This desperate, at-any-cost sentiment is mirrored in the story and it perfectly outlines the over-all tone of this film.

The story, set in the 16th century, follows an army of conquistador’s as they search for El Dorado, the lost city of gold.  The excursion is made up of hundreds of people, spaniards, courtly ladies, indians slaves, and a monk from whom we are getting the narration of the story.  As the party goes further and further into the jungle, they are whittled down by disease, attack from the native peoples, and greed.

The story itself isn’t very developed, only the destination, and their utter disregard for the people and culture that they need to step on to get to it.  What we get instead is a slow burn of a character study.  It is through observation that we learn about the mindset and goals of our main characters, and truthfully this tells us more than narration or exposition ever could.  Klaus Kinski as the titular character Don Lope de Aguirre, very much manages to embody this sort of force of nature rather than a realistic human being.  More interested in notoriety than in riches, or land, his desire seems to be the spreading of his name and reputation.  Despite this desire for this kind of attention he seems to have no interest in being a leader of men.  After engineering the downfall of their leader, he nominates a new man to be their “emperor”, and uses intimidation to get the remainder of his group to go along.

Nature plays a large part in this story, so much so that it becomes a character in and of itself.  It always surrounds the hapless men during their quest, and when they make a mis-step, nature is there to punish them for their folly.  From a raging river, to oppressive sunshine,  from overgrown jungles, to the native peoples living in the shadows of the jungle, Aguirre, The Wrath of God cronicles the dismantling of “civilization”.

This characters in this film are very much on a singular path to ruination, and death, and the structure and pacing are geared to allow the audience a chance to see it first hand.  The slow decent into madness is carried in the over all atmosphere of this film.  Nothing is positive, and there is no mistake what will happen by the end.  Herzog and Kinski, together, present a feeling of un-ease, and despair that lasts for an hour and a half.  In case I haven’t outlined it enough so far, this might not be the best movie for a first date.  Maybe wait for the third date.