Tag Archives: Sabina Stent

Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari – review

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. You can read more of her reviews at silverembers.com

The name “Dr Caligari” may cause a shudder to those of a weaker disposition. The eponymous character of the 1920 classic Das Cabinets des Dr Caligari has long been a figure of terror – and with good reason. The film has been described not just as one of the first “horror” films, but one of the first examples of a movie generating a real psychological uneasiness in its audience. Caligari has been labelled in many different ways – German expressionism, horror story, psychological thriller and a classic of the silent era – but it was also Germany’s first postwar cinematic success, and it reflects the anguish of the people who had been through four terrible years.

Thanks to those classic expressionist touches, the sharp and angled sets, gothic imagery and expressionist undertones, Caligari was as visually frightening as its narrative. More recent audiences may have also been unsettle by the poor physical condition of prints of the film. Despite numerous attempts to finesse the quality of the film – first by the Filmmuseum München in 1980 and followed by the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the Lumière European MEDIA project in 1995 – imperfections were still evident: visible scratches, jumps and blank screens, blurred title cards, unstable images and bleached-out, near-featureless faces.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Caligari’s story is told in partial flashback as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells the tale of the horrors that he and fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) have endured at the hands of the Doctor. One day Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend a local carnival where they watch the act of Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) “who has slept for 23 years but will tonight wake from his dream-like trance”. The only time Cesare speaks is to tell carnivalgoers their fortune. Cesare  “knows the past and sees the future” and when Felix asks “how long will I live?” his serious, haunting response is: “To the break of dawn”. Yet the fear is not restricted to the carnival. At night Cesare is woken by Caligari to do his deathly bidding, and so begins a series of murders, abductions and mental unravelling.

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Surrealism, symbols and sexuality in Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. Sabina has a PhD in French studies from the University of Birmingham and is a regular contributor to Zero magazine. Her PhD thesis was on Women Surrealists: sexuality, fetish, femininity and female surrealism – and you can read it in full here. This article is an edited extract from her thesis, focusing on the early cinema of Luis Buñuel.

Sabina Stent
Sabina Stent

There are particular images that were central to the Surrealist movement. The human hand, for example, became a frequent Surrealist motif and can be seen in the movement’s films, paintings and photography. Why were these motifs so important to Surrealism and why do we continue to discuss them as part of the movement’s history? To understand why we must look to the Surrealist films of the 1920s, specifically Un chien andalou (Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, 1928) and L’Age d’Or (Buñuel, 1930) and how key scenes emphasised the reoccurring themes that were so central to this movement.

The repetition of hands in Un chien andalou is, to put it simply, a symbol of fetish: what hands can do and how they can generate both intense pleasure and intolerable pain. Williams has commented that ‘the function of the fetish arises from the fear of castration’ and can only be preserved through making the object in question a symbol of fetish.[1] The repetition of wounded and severed hands in the film represents castration fear, and more specifically, a disembodied phallus. This is emphasised when we realise that all the hands, whether injured or exuding ants, are male.
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