The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. David Lee Fisher, 2005)

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For most lovers of old movies, remake is a dirty word, despite remakes being a big part of Hollywood output since the silent era. But still, there are some movies where you feel it was done right the first time. I feel a little differently: if a filmmaker has a newer take on a classic, then there’s no problem with them remaking, say, the expressionist horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, so long as they’re hoping to make their version distinct.

That is not the case with the 2005 remake of Caligari, a virtual shot-for-shot remake with the handicap of sound. Yes, I said handicap. There’s an erroneous idea that silent film was inherently handicapped with its lack of spoken dialogue, but this is simply untrue. Silence lends a sense of heightened reality and can add a lot of atmosphere and even credibility to fantastical or weird stories. It’s hard to imagine something as macabre as Tod Browning’s The Unknown or as fairy tale melodramatic as The Son of the Sheik benefiting at all from the dose of realism which sound brings, breaking that otherworldly spell.

Sound wrecks the otherworldly ambiance.

Sound wrecks the otherworldly ambiance.

Green screening in scanned backgrounds from the original 1920 film, using the same make-up and costumes, and even taking beat-for-beat from some of the performances, you have to wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. There’s a fine, fine line between homage and ripping off, and I would say this is just a redundant rip-off. The added dialogue is wretched, with characters over-explaining their motivations and the film’s themes. Any Caligari fan will tell you part of the story’s charm is its ambiguity and the remake destroys that. The performances are mostly dreadful too, trying to emulate the stylized method of the original cast in spurts and starts when they aren’t delivering dialogue much in the half-dead Star Wars prequel manner, with the exception of Doug Jones as Cesare and Daamen J. Krall as Caligari (the latter of which looks so much like Werner Krauss, it’s eerie).

The moral of the story: if you’re going to bother remaking a classic, make it your own. Just copying the original while also wrecking what made it good in the first place leads to disaster.

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4 thoughts on “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. David Lee Fisher, 2005)

  1. As a fan of the original, I’m actually curious as to what a sound remake of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari would look like. I know that Robert Weine wanted to make it back in the 1930s with Jean Cocteau, but it never came into fruition. I think that a remake in the right hands has potential, but then again I also think that the pure visual storytelling is a critical component of the story and the addition of sound would have to be handled very carefully.

    As for the 2005 version, I find it to be a bit of a missed opportunity for me. It just didn’t do enough to stand up on its own.

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    • The biggest problem is that the film is virtually shot for shot the original film with inferior acting and sound. I think a reimagining could work in the right hands, but a different approach is needed to make that worthwhile.

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  2. Heck yes, sound can be a handicap! You explained that very well. Certain films need the dreamier atmosphere that often accompanies a silent film.

    I’ve just nominated you for a Liebster Award, by the way! See my site for details. 🙂

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