Monday, October 05, 2009

“Du mußt Caligari werden!”

The early years of cinema were a strange, often daring time for filmmakers. The technology was still new and the limitations were considerable (no sound, no color) but from this primitive crucible arose some of the most influential movies to grace the screens of the world. The movies were generally over-acted and larger than life, but that all helped provide sights for the audience that they had never seen before. In this push for casting creative and unique visions onto the retinas of unsuspecting theatergoers, filmmakers naturally turned to horror as a means of leaving an impact. The German Expressionist classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in English) made in 1920 (I’ve also seen it listed as 1919) has been claimed to be the very first real horror film. That's debatable, but its definitely one of the earliest horror films that survives intact.

A man named Francis is telling another man a story about how when he was younger, he was witness to an incredibly strange series of events. In the mountain village of Holstenwall, our Hero tells of a strange carnival arriving in town, where the star attraction was a somnambulist (sleepwalker) who made prophecies. Francis’ friend asks how long he’s got to live, and the sleeper tells him until tomorrow. Freaked out, the friend is indeed murdered that night, by the very same somnambulist, sent out by his caretaker/handler to kill people that get on his nerves. When the somnambulist is sent to kill Francis’ beloved, the sleepwalker falls in love with her and cannot bring himself to do it. This leads to a mad chase to find the handler before he can get away, but there’s a twist ending to this 71 minute horror/thriller.

Francis: Our Hero, played by Friedrich Feher, is the narrator, telling things how he remembered them. In the flashbacks, Francis is a decisive, good, fairly standard hero character. He and Alan have something of a rivalry over the girl they both love, but its nothing that actually strains their friendship. Its never really explained what Francis does for a living, but he’s somehow able to get the police on his side and get permission to investigate the crimes himself. It may sound like a plot hole, but by the end things become clear.

Alan: Hans Heinrich von Twardowski plays the unfortunate Alan, best friend of Francis. Alan is a friendly rival for the girl, but he’s also dumb enough to ask the somnambulist when he was going to die. Turns out the sleepwalker knew what he was talking about.

Jane: Lil Dagover is the love interest for the hero, but she’s not really much of a presence in the film aside from being a motivator for Francis to find the killer and for being the cause of the somnambulist’s hesitation.

Dr. Caligari: Werner Krauss plays the diabolical Caligari with maniacal glee. Petty and vindictive, he will send out his sleepwalker to murder people that piss him off. He’s short but he’s wide, and the makeup they give him exaggerates his face for every emotion.

Cesare: Conrad Veidt plays the simultaneously sinister and sympathetic sleepwalking slayer of civilians. Alliteration aside, Cesare’s skeletal build, matted, mod-like hair and slim black costume are imposing in themselves, but then you get to his pasty white face and black circles around his eyes and you’ll agree that while he is not in the film for all that much, he is what you remember most out of it. For this and for being both menacing and pitiful at the same time, influencing all future “monsters” in cinema for…well, ever, he is this film’s badass.

I would shake director Robert Weine’s hand if I could. What the filmmakers have done is created a surreal (German Expressionist, if you want to be accurate) world for the characters to populate. Its all done with sets, props and painted backgrounds, but nothing looks like anything from the real world. The geometry is all over the place, houses are crooked, windows even more crooked (resulting in jagged lighting), chairs in an office are hugely oversized. The set design is absolutely unlike anything I’ve really seen in a film before, its insane, and they make it work incredibly. Even the text cards have an Expressionist design to them, being more than simple text on black. Possibly my favorite sequence is of Caligari running out into the night and being visually assaulted by actual words telling him that he must become Caligari. Its glorious.

Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer went full on macabre with the script. The plot is unique for the time, and the addition of a sleepwalking killer is just creepy when you think about it. The atmosphere is incredible, but the pacing is a little bit slow and there’s not actually a whole lot of murderin’ that Cesare does. The film really goes for a more intellectual level of horror, letting your imagination fill in the rest of the scenery.

Well, it’s a silent film. However, as a society, we rather like our moving pictures having sound included, and modern releases of silent films will have soundtracks. This can be an issue for public domain films like this one, because they can include different soundtracks. Some of these can be pretty terrible, actually. Do not let that dissuade you.

I will admit that my delving into the realm of silent film has been a little bit lacking in a lot of areas, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of those gaps. Now that I’ve seen it, well, it’s a fantastic piece of cinema, both historically and artistically. The pacing will probably turn off some people, the silence others, but for those of you still willing to venture forth into the macabre darkness with me, you shall be rewarded. This influential movie was remade (well, “remixed”) in 2005 using modern actors playing against digitally enhanced backgrounds from the original. Sound was used in the remake, and Doug Jones played Cesare, but other than that, I’ve heard rather mixed things about the remix. The original though, that’s a suitably awesome film.

Not an actual theatrical trailer, but good enough

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