Ashley Thorpe continues his foray through horror with the silent but deadly The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI – 1920
When Hans Janowitz and Carl Dreyer (later to create ‘Vampyr’) met each other in Berlin in the aftermath of WWI, they discussed the then embryonic medium of film as a wealth of possibility; a union of diverse artistic disciplines, a distinct national product (against the deluge of American imports) and a chance to explore expressionistic theories.
Drawing upon memories of the war and a night in Hamburg in 1913 (where Janowitz believed that he witnessed a prelude to a murder), under direction of Robert Wiene they crafted a yarn of a mad doctor and his prophet somnambulist Cesare and their possible connection to a series of murders in a German mountain village.
Caligari’s gift to film is that of film design. Its exaggerated chiaroscuro mise en scene can not only be considered the birth of the horror film, it may well be the first attempt to visually manifest the subconscious on film. Without Caligari there’s no Eraserhead. Probably no Film Noir. This is where all the good stuff starts. And like many strokes of genius it came via an inspired solution to a practical dilemma.
The studio in which Wiene was about to start shooting had very limited light (and power), so his three artists; Warm, Reiman and Rohrig (members of the expressionist collective known as ‘Der Sturm’) suggested, much to Wiene’s astonishment, that perhaps light and shadow could be painted directly onto the sets themselves and upon canvas hangings. The effect was like nothing seen before, actors participating within a living painting.
The environments are twisted and angular with distorted linear perspectives,which are used to heighten the drama of a scene. For instance, the walls of the prison cell were exaggerated to emphasize dejection and solitude, and the prisoner, sat cross legged upon the floor, sat at the juncture where the lines of the pattern converged drawing the audience’s eye to him.
In Cesare’s escape with the heroine Jane, he pounces, a living shadow, and drags her from fairy tale room to cubist angular rooftop, and then to a forest so twisted and angular as to resemble the webs of glass in a broken window, thus strengthening the drama of the fleeing figures in a mob scene that pre-empts ‘Frankenstein’ (1931).
Films from the silent era don’t tend to play well to modern audiences; performances tending to raise sniggers at their theatricality, simplicity of the sets etc. But Caligari is something else. It still looks like a child’s nightmare. Its influence can be felt everywhere from Welles to Hitchcock to Frank Miller movies to the stylings of Tim Burton. It’s charming, chilling and endlessly fascinating.
“How long do I live….?”
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