Awake A Moment -- From Your Dark Night: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

I have a soft spot for German Expressionism.  As an artistic movement I find is existential themes, jarring visual nature and philosophical pondering on the human existence absolutely fascinating.  I am particularly keen on its transfer into early German cinema.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be the shining example of expressionist silent filmmaking.  It is a haunting film that employs theatrical techniques to create a dark, ominous and orchestrated nightmare.  For being made in 1920, it is an impressive work of visual trickery, acting and plot, particularly given its twist ending.  Furthermore, its quick cuts, extreme angles and shadowy settings are key influences on Hitchcock and every horror movie to follow.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not a particularly traditional plot for a silent film, given its use of flashbacks and dream sequences; however, it is still a rather coherent narrative.  The film opens with two men talking, an unnamed older gentleman and a young man who swears to have a bizarre story to explain his sleepwalking wife. The young man Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells the elderly man of a town called Holstenwall that is famous for its annual fairs, which include a variety of amazing attractions.  In his story, Francis pays particular attention to a new act led by a man named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).  His tent claims to have a fortune telling somnambulist by the name of Cesare (Conrad Veidt).

The story seems simple and absurd at this point until Francis explains that later the same evening a murder inexplicably occurs leaving the townspeople flustered.  The next day witnesses another showing of Cesare by Caligari and in the evening, another murder occurs, unfortunately for Francis it is a dear friend of himself and his fiance.  In a moment of anger, Francis approaches Caligari and accuses Cesare of the attacks, Caligari dismisses this claim and allows them to keep eye of Cesare that evening.  However, Caligari's sway over the sleeping allows him to use another man to kill Francis's fiance, this other person, however, happens to be his dear, and recently deceased, friend.  Incapable of proving Caligari's fault in the murder Francis chases him to discover that Caligari is in fact under disguise as a Director of an insane asylum, a front Caligari uses to find patients that sleep walk upon which to experiment.  Francis through determination proves that Caligari is a fraud and psychotic and with the help of wards straps Caligari into his own bed.  The film fades to black and Francis is then shown mingling amongst the patients at the psychiatry ward.  Caligari, now the director, descends the stairs to the dismay of Francis, who instantly attempts to attack Caligari, claiming him responsible for multiple deaths.  It is now Francis who is shown being tied into a bed as an onlooking Caligari claims to have discovered the source of the young man's madness.  In an innovative moment of filmmaking The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film about a dream, and jars viewers with the realization that what they just witnessed was never a moment of reality.

I noted my fascination with expressionism at the beginning of the piece.  I want to pay particular attention to how this artistic style plays well into the dream narrative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  As is obvious the film is told from the viewpoint of a psychotic man.  As such it helps to explain why the entire films set is unyielding in its ominous presence.  Each tree, building and lamppost leans drastically in an attempt to devour the characters around it.  There is no source of comfort in this setting for a person who is mentally convinced that others are attempting to destroy him and the sharp angles and monstrous features of Holstenwall.  All which reflect the bizarre imagination of Francis.  Beyond this, each character is heavily doused in makeup to add emphasis to their features.  Francis's fiance has deep set eyes which are heavily shadowed, furthering her hollowness in regards to the flailing reality in which Francis exists.  Caligari's wrinkles are emphasized and his hair is disheveled making him appear as a madman to Francis, as opposed to being the demur and logical director of a psychiatric ward.  In fact, the only character in the entirety of the narrative that does not possess heightened facial features is Francis himself, because it is his nightmare making his own corporeal being that last vestige of reality.  This disconnect between mans bleak reality and the oppressive world that consumes him is a key theme of expressionist art and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exemplifies the style perfectly.

The tragedy of many silent films is their terrible restoration.  Thanks to Kino Films and other companies, these films are at least available to audiences.  However, I would suggest choosing your own background music while watching these, I particularly enjoy listening to ambient music such as Sigur Ros, Grouper and Brian Eno, but to each their own.  Simply put this is a masterpiece of a film and a cheap copy is certainly obtainable.

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