Sunday, 30 June 2013

Art of darkness… The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Unique and, as it transpired, un-repeatable, yet so influential… It’s difficult to write “new” about one of the established silent film canon but that’s not what these blogs are really about: it’s your personal interaction with the subject, your discovery and not your opinion where the work should stand as an objectively verifiable “great film”.

With Caligari and a select few, it’s also not a question of when you should watch it but where... The DVD’s long been burning a mark on my shelf but I leapt at the chance to watch the film in the bowels of London’s neoclassical marvel Somerset House.

A select mix of middle-aged cognoscenti and film studies undergrads were ushered into the comfort of the House’s screening room to watch what many consider to be the first true “art” film and the most important horror film of its age.


Cesare carries Jane
Caligari did not disappoint and it did, indeed, surprise… the cause of which I won’t go into here: if I can hold out long enough to see this film as nature intended then so should you…

Its enduring popularity can be attributable to this robust narrative but also to the most artfully artful mis-en-scene in cinematic history. We all know how Caligari looks even if we haven’t seen the film and the image of its central character, Cesare, the somnambulistic seer, is etched across a thousand t-shirts (Bela Lugosi's Dead* but Conrad Veidt is only sleeping…).

Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Lil Dagover
Produced by Erich Pommer and directed by Robert Wiene - as Fritz Lang was busy (on Die Spinnen) - Caligari utilised the stunning art direction of Hermann Warm and his painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. Whilst this work was highly stylised there is logic in the way it was used with almost the whole tale told against a backdrop of demented splashes of white on distorted angular black. Only the Asylum looks anything like a real  space along with the garden at the film’s beginning... but there’s a reason for that…

The story was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and controversially the film toned down their anti-establishment, post-war, pacifist narrative… but, if millions of soldiers could be convinced into killing each other, surely one man could be hypnotised into murder on demand?

Friedrich Fehér in the garden
The story begins with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Fehér) talking to an older friend in a sparse winter garden. A young woman appears dressed in a nightgown; she looks deeply disturbed and walks past as in a dream, oblivious to her surroundings. Francis says that she is his fiancée and starts to tell the tale of how she came to be so afflicted.

The scenery shifts to impressionistic landscapes with mad lines, rough swathes of white and black paint and uniform irregularity – there’s hardly a right angle in sight and the world seems moulded around the characters. The title cards are also similarly wrought, fully integrated with the style of the sets, mini-artworks in their own right.


Whether this was a popularisation of expressionist art or a daring innovation in cinema is beside the point: nothing else looks like this and it works supremely well in reflecting the psychic state of the narrator… The film melds the emerging science of psychiatry with expressionist art to question the reliability of human perception and will.

Werner Krauss at the fair
Back in the town where Francis lived he was involved in a contest with his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for the heart of the local beauty Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover). The boys visit a travelling fair and witness Cesare the somnambulist (young Conrad Veidt) who emerges from Cailigari's cabinet, mysteriously controlled by the strange Doctor (Werner Krauss).

Cesare has slept for most of his 23 years and this has seemingly given him the power to see the future. He forecasts Alan’s death by “dawn tomorrow”, the two laugh it off – cheered by meeting Jane on their way home – but a notice concerning the murder of a local bureaucrat shakes them.

Caligari un-boxes Cesare
The prophecy of Cesare comes true and we see a figure shadowed against Alan’s bedroom wall, strike a dagger into the young man. Francis is distraught and begins to investigate Caligari and his sleeping partner with the help of Jane’s father and the police.

An attempted murder elsewhere in the town provides a temporary alibi for Caligari and Francis realises his original suspicions may still be accurate. By this point Jane has gone to the fair in search of her father but only finds Cailgari who delights in introducing her to Cesare, Jane flees in terror and the Doctor has his next target.

After Alan’s funeral Francis goes in search of his suspects and as he stakes out Caligari’s caravan, a dummy lying in the cabinet makes it appear that Cesare is still there... yet the somnambulist has already been sent to murder Jane.

Can Cesare control himself?
This sequence is probably the most iconic in the film as Veidt snakes his way along moonlit walls and into Jane’s room – all soft edges and pure white. But Cesare is captivated by Jane and cannot kill her… instead he abducts her, carrying her off over rooftops and alongside wonky roads as a growing army of townsfolk pursue.

Cesare has to drop Jane and runs on alone… as Francis uncovers the Doctor’s ruse and follows him into the grounds of a mental hospital where the real secret of Dr Caligari will be revealed not once but twice or even possibly three times…

Caligari confronted
For a film with such an uncompromisingly stylised look, Caligari’s narrative is surprisingly conventional as you can probably tell from my convoluted summary above. But this is what makes it work so well: the natural flow of human events in stark contrast to the fear and loathing evident in much of the stage sets. If the exterior play of the actors was as deranged as much of the landscape it would be less… un-nerving.

Robert Wiene’s direction is superb and very disciplined. Even with a fixed camera the story telling is dynamic and the director cuts quickly between emotionally charged scenes, often using an off-centre iris shot to open and close each act.

Friedrich Fehér, Rudolf Lettinger and Lil Dagover
The actors are also excellent, with Friedrich Fehér having to achieve a huge amount as the heroic Francis – our main connection to this uncertain world whilst Lil Dagover fulfils the role of damaged heroine with aplomb and is also very good at being carried  when catatonic...

Caligari assailed by obsessive compulsion...
Werner Krauss is wonderfully malevolent as the Doctor driven by an obsession to understand the psychology of slaughter – is he the epitome of unrelenting militaristic-scientific advancement? But it’s Conrad Veidt who creates the icon, his Cesare being a balletic forerunner of so many scissor-handed, Frankenstein monsters with hearts of gold… and you can’t really blame him for Goth.


The version we saw was the 1996 restoration which was enhanced by the excellent but unrelenting score from Timothy Brock which was just that little bit louder than would have been comfortable… or at least it felt that way.

Both are available on the Eureka DVD (available from Movie Mail) which has an informative audio essay/commentary from film historian Mike Budd as well as Wiene’s Caligari follow-up Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920).

Mrs Joyce takes in the view at Somerset House before the film begins...

*Northampton goth band, Bauhaus' debut single from 1979...

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