The Festival Theatre’s “Silent Cinema” season presented one of the universally accepted masterpieces of the period tonight –The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Not only was this a rare opportunity to watch on a full sized cinema screen what is considered by many to be the first true horror film, but also an opportunity to watch a painstakingly restored digital version that for the first time utilised technology to allow restoration from the almost complete original film negatives and other important film archive material – no complete original of the film has survived over the near 100 years since the film’s original production and release.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of those films that I have heard so much about over the years, but up until now only seen the many clips of films that were probably in the minds of many people in the theatre tonight. This is truly an amazing film, and more so when you consider that it was made just shortly after the aftermath of the unimaginable horrors of World War 1...not only that, but written by two men, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, who were confirmed pacifists with not only a distrust but a confirmed defiance of authority. These two personal viewpoints would already make them stand out in an immediate post-war Germany.
This film is probably one of the few that does deserve the title “masterpiece”, and not only one of German Expressionist Cinema and much of that accolade is due not only to the writing, but to the on screen visuals. The film's design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one (thanks to Wikipedia for this information). For me, it is the surreal set design of this film that gives it so much of its power. There is a dream like quality to the visuals that at times make you feel like you are walking through an Edvard Munch landscape and world (just look at the poster of the Somnambulist that Dr Caligari uses for the fair). This lack of on screen identifiable visual landmarks no doubt has contributed enormously to the enduring power of this film (almost 100 years now). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is truly timeless, and there was for me this strange feeling of losing track of time whilst watching it.
Where do you even begin approaching this film from – the political messages, the concept of making someone perform acts in a “non waking” state that would be normally abhorrent to them, pacifism, the rise of Adolf Hitler, or so many other sub-texts contained within. Well to be honest, I am not even going to explore those areas other than to note that they are there. So much has been written about this film over the years by people far more informed than myself that I leave their commentaries for others to read. As always, Wikipedia does have some information that you might find interesting at this page
What is obvious about this film though is that visual elements alone would form the foundation of so much that was to come in the next 50 years of cinema…perhaps Cesare even founded (if unknowingly) a whole Goth movement generations later.
For the completionist, here are the main creatives on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Best known to contemporary audiences is possibly Conrad Veidt who in a long career of over 100 films achieved iconic fame in one of his last roles as Major Heinrich Strasser in “Casablanca”.
Directed by Robert Wiene
Produced by Rudolf Meinert & Erich Pommer
Written by Hans Janowitz Carl Mayer
Werner Krauss / Dr. Caligari
Conrad Veidt / Cesare the somnambulist
Friedrich Feher / Francis
Lil Dagover /Jane
Hans Twardowski / Alan
Music by Giuseppe Becce
Cinematography Willy Hameister
Distributed by Decla-Bioscop
Release date February 26, 1920 (Germany)
Music tonight it has to be noted was by a wonderful newly composed score by Will Pickvance, and so used as we are now to sound in films, it was all too easy to forget at times that this film was silent, and Will was playing this score live on piano on stage.
Our opening films were some very short films from pioneering film maker Georges Melies. These films from the very early 1900s (1903 for many) show a filmmaker not only with a penchant for disembodied human heads but also one who was clearly understanding the possibility of using film as a medium for visual effects. One “colourised” short in particular “Infernal Cauldron” possibly terrified cinema audiences of over 100 years ago – many of whom would never have seen a moving picture before in their lives. Sadly Georges Melies did not benefit much financially from his vision or his films as many others simply stole his ideas and works.
To modern audiences conditioned to digital graphic manipulation these short films may seem almost childish, but it is the imagination of Georges Melies that is important here and also worth remembering that he was pioneering with cutting edge technology of his day. Many of the techniques used in these short films were still in use in classic 1960s television shows like “Bewitched”.
Review by Tom King