Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

(1920) *****

This continues my day of working through German expressionism in totally haphazard fashion, from the noir expressionist-inflected 1955 Night of the Hunter back to this original German silent masterpiece. Next I'm going to start M as soon as I finish writing this. Somehow, I'd missed seeing Caligari all these years, so when I saw it on the library shelf last night, I figured it would go well with Hunter and M, which I already had in the basket.

Starting out, I got a little worried in the first 3-4 minutes of this one. The image was soooo crappy and distorted that I thought I was doing damage to my pretty Samsung hdtv. And if, like me, you don't watch a lot of silent film, when you start one for the first time in 20 years (since The Gold Rush and Nosferatu in high school), you immediately begin to feel more like you're doing homework than watching a movie.

But just as that bummer feeling was washing over me, this one shifted gears and sucked me in. The main story is about a freakshow-type attraction at a carnival in some small German Alps town. A crazy looking guy named Dr. Caligari has a big cabinet (more like a coffin) in which he keeps a somnambulist named Cesare. Each "show" consists of Caligari magically "waking" Cesare from his 23 year slumber to answer questions from the crowd about the past or future. I loved that the very first person to step forward went right for the money shot: "When am I going to die?" Nothing like warming up to it, eh? Unfortunately, the answer Cesare gives back is "Before dawn." And sure enough, that night the guy is brutally murdered. He had been the best friend of the narrator of our story, Francis, and they both were in love with the same woman, Jane. So Jane and Francis decide to get to the bottom of the murder, and this becomes the mystery of the rest of the movie.

While I can't see myself watching this multiple times for entertainment value alone, this is definitely a flick worth checking out once in your life, especially for horror/sci-fi fans. Aside from marveling at the stylized and artificial sets typical of expressionism with all their freaky distorted angles and shadows, there's a sense that you could easily trace dozens of movies and scenes straight back to right here. When Cesare creeps along an alley on his way to murder Jane, it's both really spooky AND a deja vu moment wherein you feel like you've seen this imitated a million times. Same thing happens again and again--the first time we see Cesare closeup is another example. His white painted face and expressive darkened eyes and lips bring to mind everyone from Depp's Edward Scissorhands to Ledger's Joker.

It's also interesting to think of this movie as part of the larger artistic/philosophical movement of modernism, of which German expressionism is an early example. That's actually a tough mental trick, to see this old grainy silent b/w film and think "How modern!" Probably for that reason, I've usually ignored film when I think about the intersections amongst say, painting and literature and architecture and music in the modern period, but this one certainly brought to mind Joyce and Woolf and Picasso and Munch.


Octopunk said...

I LOVE this movie! Such a good choice. It warms my heart that some of the earliest films ever made were horror movies.

You're not wrong about it feeling like you're doing homework sometimes, though. Well put.

miko564 said...

Landshark, you smart. Review make Miko's head hurt. Owwww.