Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

To the bf's at the weekend and another classic film - he must think I am in sore need of a cinematic education.  And perhaps I am.
This time it was 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari'.  Funny, but the cultural ripples of this film, one of the most important examples of Expressionist Cinema, have been present in my life, (and probably all our lives) for years.  In particular I remember seeing a still of the film as a child/teenager when looking through our newly acquired edition of the 'Encyclopedia Britannica': an old man (turns out it was Dr Caligari himself) walking down some crazily angled corridor, the walls daubed with what looked like fragments of musical staves.  Like so many things in my life they have passed for years without me giving them due acknowledgement.  The price, perhaps, of being a carer.
Apparently this was one of the first films to frame the main action with scenes, a bit, I suppose, like a play or novel may have a prologue and epilogue.  In the prologue we meet the main protagonist - Francis, played by Friedrich Feher - and the woman, Jane, (Lil Dagover) who he claims to be her fiancee.  We are immediately intrigued because of the expression of mental exhaustion on her face. Francis then offers to tell his companion (and thereby us, the audience) the extraordinary events that have lead them to this present circumstance; and with that we are plunged into a distorted, claustrophobic world.  A painted world, and very painterly at that.  We are in no doubt of its artificiality.  The town is a heap of a late Medieval German city on a hill.  (The framing scenes however have a look of Symbolism.)  It is fair time in the city, and sinister Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) has arrived with his 'act' to delight, bewilder and disturb the populace.  Dr Caligari has with him a somnambulist - a cadaverous young man called Cesare (Konrad Weit) who is an almost permanent catatonic state but whom Dr Caligari can momentarily rouse and get to utter predictions.  Slowly Francis and Jane are drawn into a spiral of horror and murder as their lives unravel at the instigation of Dr Caligari.
The film, which somehow crosses definitions - it is both horror and a detective thriller - explores the thin membrane between the occult and mental illness.  Sanity and insanity.  Who precisely is what? There are themes, also, shared with other contemporary German horror films - 'Nosferatu' and 'Der Golem'.  Interestingly the somnambulist, Cesare, is a paradoxical figure being both victim and perpetrator, a vampiric figure who stalks the night at the behest of his master, but can still provoke sympathy in the audience.
I am very pleased to have seen this film - I've always been drawn to the exaggerated lighting effects such as you can find in Film Noir, or some of the films of David Lean such as 'Oliver Twist'.  It must certainly must have had an effect on the whole Neo-Romantic scene here in the UK.  However I probably have enjoyed it more had there been a different score.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
1920

Producer               Rudolph Meinert & Erich Pommer
Director                 Robert  Wiene
Cinematography  Willy Hamiester

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