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|
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|
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 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|
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|
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?|
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…
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|
|Caligari assailed by obsessive compulsion...|
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...|