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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005)



In this new version of Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, writer/director David Lee Fisher attempts to pay homage to the German Expressionist classic. Using modern digital techniques, he places his actors in front of backgrounds from the original, adds spoken dialogue to what was once a silent movie, and expects us to be impressed with his "remix." However, the result isn't so much a reorchestration as it is the same damn thing with grating voices yammering malarkey over the music.

There's no flaw in the story itself -- there shouldn't be, since Caligari 2005 lifts it scene-by-scene from its brilliant predecessor. Both films concern carnival sideshow exhibitionist Dr. Caligari and his pet project, the fortune-telling somnambulist Cesare. Two friends, Alan and Francis, attend Caligari's show, where Cesare predicts that Alan will not live to see the next day. As Cesare stabbing Alan to death that night would have it, the prophecy is fulfilled. Francis is driven to an almost maniacal frenzy in his persecution of Caligari as the culprit, but the old doctor proves to be very clever when it comes to diverting suspicion.

Fisher's main addition to Caligari -- dialogue -- is an irritating distraction. So much of the 1920 film's story, art design, editing, and cinematography was predicated on a silent experience. It doesn't work with actors flapping their gums, uttering uninspired lines which are either lifted from the intertitles or represent a banal attempt to "expand" the relationships of the main characters in ways they need not be expanded. For instance, it's not enough that Francis and Alan vie for the affections of Jane, the only cute girl in town -- the two friends must now be long-estranged because Alan had been suffering from some unspecified but tragic mental deterioration.  Um, what?

The acting is a mess. Poor Doug Jones, who has been so good under layers of latex in films like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, is woefully miscast as Cesare. He tries for the ominous menace that Conrad Veidt originally brought to the role, but just comes off as earnest. Daamen J. Krall desperately wishes he were Albert Finney or Michael Gambon in his craggy, grumpy rendition of Caligari. The rest of the cast act as if they were still in a silent movie, filling the screen with flourishes that exude emotions that they then speak of -- frequently at length. One of the grand benefits of the sound era is the ability to underplay your physicality, people. Embrace it.

All of this matters little if the film remains consistently engaging. Unfortunately, Fisher once again disappoints. For a film that runs a mere 76 minutes, barely longer than its predecessor, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari drags on endlessly, one monotonous moment after another. It's like being stuck at a theater watching a community theater troupe perform a labored adaptation of a favorite movie. Actually, that's not entirely true, as Fisher's film does have one advantage over such a hideous spectacle -- it can be stopped with a press of a button.

I suppose the proper question to ask here is "Why?" Fisher adds nothing to Weine's film. Caligari 2005 clings to the mechanics of its template to the point of suffocation, wringing out every drop of intelligence and leaving nothing particularly innovative for itself. If that was Fisher's plan, then he succeeded at something -- wasting our time. If you have any interest in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I can recommend the 1920 film wholeheartedly. The original is a heady experience, as freed by its lack of spoken words as this version is anchored by their inclusion.