Saturday, August 16, 2014

#188: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

Two men, one older and one younger, sit in an ominous, almost oppressive darkness, talking. A woman who appears to be in a trance walks past. "That's my fiancée," the younger man says and tells the older man his story. In the story, the man and his friend are both in love with the same woman. They agree to respect her choice and will remain friends no matter what happens. A traveling carnival comes to town, and they attend the festivities together. A creepy older man named Caligari invites them, and several other carnival-goers, into his tent. Caligari brings out Cesare, a somnambulist who has been in a hypnotized sleep state for all of his 23 years. Caligari says he can bring Cesare out of this state briefly in order to predict future events and invites the crowd to ask questions. The zombie-like Cesare stares intensely into the void, and the man's friend asks how long he has left to live. (Bad idea.) Cesare tells him he has only until the break of dawn. The stabbing deaths of the man's friend and a surly clerk follow, and suspicion soon points toward the mysterious Caligari and Cesare.
Of course, if you've seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the most famous horror films, silent films, and German Expressionist works of art, you know how the story shakes down, and you also know how inadequate words and plot descriptions are when considering the visual experience this film provides. Caligari's an important one. Horror wasn't a major genre in the early days of film. Westerns, melodramas, comedies, and little slices of life were the rage in the first 25 years of the medium's existence, with horror playing the part of neglected stepchild.  (I do need to point out that there are many exceptions to my generalizations here. Notably, Germany made many horror films in this era. Also, most silent films didn't survive, so their history and our understanding of it will always be incomplete.)
With Caligari leading the charge, however, the 1920s proved to be a landmark decade for horror and silent film in general, with filmmakers mastering the expressive capabilities of the medium before the advent of sound at decade's end forced many to scale back visual expressiveness in order to accommodate the clunky early sound equipment. Several silent horror films predating Caligari have survived, but Caligari is the first one that feels like a fully realized manifestation of the genre.
Director Robert Wiene creates a unified mood, tone, and look that is its own world, a world of shadows, darkness, madness, dread, fear, disorientation, obsession, and murder. Though nearing its centennial, the film feels modern, like someone from the present using an antique medium to burrow into his/her subsconscious. Caligari is still scary and disturbing, with legendary actor Conrad Veidt especially expressive and frightening as Cesare, the somnambulist.
A few words about Veidt. A central figure in silent German horror, Veidt created iconic characters in Caligari, Waxworks, and The Man Who Laughs, with his performance in the latter inspiring the look of the Joker in the Batman comic books. Though he wasn't Jewish, Veidt was married to a Jewish woman and always wrote Jew as his ethnicity on Nazi-mandated paperwork in solidarity with his wife. A staunch and active anti-Nazi, Veidt learned of a plan to assassinate him. The couple fled Germany in 1933 and became British citizens, with Veidt donating most of his money to the war effort. He became a popular character actor in Hollywood, most famously appearing in Casablanca, and he died on a Hollywood golf course of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 1943. I need to quote two sentences from his imdb biography here: "Conrad liked animals, theater, cinema, fast cars, pastries, thunderstorms, gardening, swimming and golfing. He disliked heights, flying, the number 17, wearing ties, pudding and interviews." Veidt also narrowly missed playing Dracula in the famous Universal film of 1931, when he was still living in Germany. Studio head Carl Laemmle wanted Veidt in the part, and it seemed like a good fit, especially considering that German filmmaker Paul Leni, who had worked with Veidt often, was hired as director. As so often happens in Hollywood, time went by and the project moved to different people. When Tod Browning inherited the film, he had his heart set on Bela Lugosi, which turned out to be a pretty great idea. Still, a Veidt Dracula is one of those what-ifs that could have altered the course of horror.
Back to Caligari. Its Expressionist sets have been written about in great detail, so forgive my brief comments here. The deliberate artificiality, distorted perspective, and sharp angles of the backdrops reflect the characters' discombobulated mental states and have the paradoxical effect of making the film feel more plausible emotionally, as well as ensuring a timeless quality that keeps it from being a museum piece. Though the sets are just paint on paper, they create a hypnotic, dreamlike atmosphere and represent much of what draws me to horror as a genre. Even this early in the medium's history, horror was pushing film forward by expanding the limits of visual expressiveness and narrative convention. There is a freedom to experiment without alienating an audience in horror that is not often granted in other genres. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of those trailblazers, and the film hasn't lost its power. If you haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for, you knucklehead? (Sorry I called you a knucklehead.)

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