Monday 1 July 2013

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Dr Caligari!
This is one of the great classics of German expressionist cinema, a genre which, in my crude understanding, manifests itself in highly stylised sets of strange angles, with performances to match.  It's a technique used on a much larger scale and budget in 'Metropolis' (1927), but which here manages to be far more original, and so far less impressive.

There's an extent to which circumstances have contrived against 'Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari' winning more of my approval.  For one thing, I'd already seen several monochrome German horror and crime films more to my tastes: the aforementioned 'Metropolis', 'Faust' (1926), 'M' (1931) and 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), all of which were slicker, faster and more unsettling.  For another, I had a choice between watching it on second-hand VHS and watching it on Youtube, neither of which is great for an 83-year old film.  I plumped for the latter which may have been a mistake; it turned out this silent film was silent indeed, and I had to provide my own soundtrack, either through humming or (more practically) through playing what incidental music I had on my phone - the works of Michael Nyman, Roger Limb, and the Radiophonic Workshop.  Watching a slow film in silence is almost unbearable, and thankfully this music wasn't too jarring in tone.

The eponymous cabinet.  I expected something more substantial.
I ought to extend this film some due acknowledgement.  It was made in the 1910s, yet it actually has some facial close-ups, a novelty in those early times, and tells its story clearly enough to follow but only slightly too clearly.  It has cinema's first twist ending, which I initially failed to grasp, but which seems to throw a new light on the rest of the film, and it has a striking central idea, the somnambulist who sleeps in a coffin waking only to predict the future and commit crimes, somewhat in the vein of the Hashshashins of ancient Araby.

Alas, the wonky buildings and the idiosyncratically-painted backdrops work better in film when they're rendered more dynamically, and when the picture quality is better.  It's a style I like, but in recent years it's an aesthetic that's been co-opted by pantomimes, and the low-budget woodwork that makes up this film's tiny sets leaves them with the feeling of a provincial theatre production.  The film is so early that its great innovations have all been repeated and bettered through the decades, and especially so in the remainder of the twenties, making it hard to appreciate how striking the movie must have been when it was new.

In short, I'm pretty sure this is better than any of the films I've seen from earlier years, but it's very much eclipsed by everything that came after.  I feel rather rude dismissing this seminal piece of art as insufficient or comparatively disappointing, but there it is.  It's good, but I'd recommend any of the aforementioned films as better.

Well, here it is on DVD if you're curious.

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