Saturday, 1 November 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Dir. Robert Wiene

The last review for the Halloween season...and with this I'm stepping further than Wild Zero (1999) into something I first saw, on a college campus, which has had a subconscious effect on me. I was studying this film in fact in my Film Studies class alongside Nosferatu (1922), a immense pair to see, amongst other films, if there ever was one. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari has a weight to it that is utterly profound. One of the first horror films, and such a drastic influence on what was to come. The brilliance of it as a film is that, yet, the movie still feels drastically unique compared to all that came after it in the same genre. In a story within a story, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) arrives at a town with his carnival attraction, a somnambulist named Caesar (Conrad Veidt). As murders are taking place it's not long before the friend of the one of the victims Francis (Friedrich Feher) suspects that the two are involved somehow, a threat to the love of his life Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover) significant. Immediately the film stands out, for what is under the umbrella of German Expressionism, an artistic style of multiple mediums that wanted to depicted the internal, subconscious reality of the mind instead of realism. This was the context that the film was being taught to us in Film Studies, so at the same time I was being introduced to German Expressionism as well. Using hand made sets, the world of Caligari's is an irregular, distorted place, of angular, disturbed buildings, heavy use of blacks even for a monochrome film, and claustrophobic interiors and urban streets where the buildings seem to be leaning to each other. It's a depiction of a nightmare, and what'll be more interesting for me to write of is what it was like to see this for the first time in college. I was taken aback by it, fascinated by its singular look, seeing the sense of the distorted portrayed fully. Even back then, not able to appreciate films that alarmed and forced viewers into unconventional and uncomfortable positions, Caligari was still able to succeed because its style translated all the menace and unease required for its story to me, and would be able to for any normal film goer, despite its age and potential technical limitations, possessing a fully formed world.

You can see the debt directors like Tim Burton have to this, but the film is still radically different, viewing it again, from many films. Even against the couple German Expressionist films I have seen its drastically different and goes further. There is still something unnerving about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in mood because of its aesthetic and tone. A warped frame of mind befitting the fact that the story-within-a-story is possibly up for question, whose obvious artificiality makes it impossible for the film to be absorbed and loosened of its effect. It's too menacing and dark still to be digestible, to be the fun spookiness of Tim Burton or as far as being defanged like a lot of older horror films. So much so that, on a big screen, the little details are what build up the world being depicted the most, even to how impractical the furniture looks to sit on for characters, remoulded a person if they were to use them. Everything has a connection to the aesthetic being used and, of course, being physically real, the weight is felt. Unlike a Burton as well, the small scale of the film gives them a better ability to draw you as a viewer to the atmosphere.

A person like me viewing this film is going to be pulled in by how unconventional it is, and being a silent film adds to this factor. With there being no onscreen dialogue at all, only inter titles, there is an additional sense of the film taking place in a different reality. It actually took me a long time, within the last few years in fact, to be able to fully appreciate silent cinema, but back at college this film and Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1925), being taught in the same subject on Germany's and the Soviet Union's radically different cinematic innovations in the twenties,  immediately caught me because of their elaborate and distinct use of the visuals. Caligari is not a radically advanced film in terms of technique - the camera is static each shot, editing basic, none of the complicated technique of D.W. Griffith that would become mainstream or that of Soviet filmmakers whose editing is even more avant garde now - but aesthetically its advanced. In its use of background and production design, lighting, a scene where text appears in shot overlaid on the images and generally pushing the look of cinema to express its nightmarish story of murder and secrets. A film depicting less than a rational world, while it would influence many films to come, and has a conventional mystery plot for the most part in its core, it's style yet is completely at odds still with most cinema. Acting and how actors are made up is also a factor in this, as German Expressionism went for intentionally unrealistic and choreographed acting, characters depicted with heavy makeup and acting more broadly than was already arch in silent cinema to register meanings without access for sound.

Encountering a film like this, with an elaborate style, was an eye opening experience. Famously, it's twist ending is just as immortalised, a hackneyed plot twist in modern movies but here still an unsettling sting for how old the film is, one of the first to do this, and for how in lieu of its tone it works perfectly for the mood. I wouldn't be surprised if this film is what got me hooked onto darker, more abstract films I have been covering for this season and watch in general. Certainly watching it again, its captivating still, an immense power to the content and images. The rawness of being an early film in cinema's history with the sophistication of the content making it still incredibly rewarding to watch.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High
It would've been insane not to give this the highest rating. Not only does it deserve it for being one of the first films to do many of the things that make up this type of cinema - locations designed to match the protagonist's state of mind, unconventional acting, the abnormal plot content including madness and psychiatry, the twist ending - but it's still a very unconventional film to this day. Its age in fact has added to this, a creation from another era of cinema lost to us because of advancing technology but, made with hand painted sets and a group of actors, its closed-in world is uniquely its own, graspable as filming sets and a world familiar to us, but more disconnected from reality at the same time.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Pretty safe to say that this was one of the films that built this blog and my entire interest in this sort of cinema in the first place, leaving an imprint that has fed my imagination, which is immensely obvious now revisiting the film. It's a representative, the best, for what this blog is meant to be, the poster film above many others for what "Cinema of the Abstract" is meant to mean. Films that you leave feeling you've stepped into another world, which in this case was, fittingly, one of the films that did it first and better than most of its offspring.

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