by Allan Fish
(Germany 1919 75m) DVD1/2
Aka. Das Kabinet des Dr Caligari
Awake for a moment from your dark night
p Erich Pommer d Robert Wiene w Carl Meyer, Hans Janowitz ph Willy Hameister art Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig, Walter Reimann cos Walter Reimann
Werner Krauss (Caligari), Conrad Veidt (César the Somnambulist), Lil Dagover (Jane), Friedrich Feher (Francis), Hans Von Twardowski (Alan), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (criminal),
So was not only the somnambulist awoken by his master, but German cinema in general from its wartime malaise. Caligari is a film which has gone through a rollercoaster ride of critical approval, long venerated as the first masterpiece of the seventh art’s German expressionistic era and as a milestone in the development of cinematic horror, it went through a period during the eighties and nineties where it was, if not derided, then certainly attacked as dated, faded and even archaic. Not only were such attacks unjustified, they were not the fault of the film. For too long it was only available in a butchered 45 minute print of second generation degenerate quality (such was it released in the UK by Redemption video) and it wasn’t until the late nineties and the advent of DVD that a proper reconstruction and restoration showcased the film as, if still a little faded (wouldn’t you be after over eighty years?), a classic of cinema.
A man sits on a bench and tells how a fairground showman uses a somnambulist for murderous purposes while touring the town of Holstenwall. When his cultured friend Alan is the one killed, young student Francis sets off to prove the showman as the culprit. However, it turns out that the whole thing has been made up by Francis’ distorted mind and that the bench is in an asylum, presided over by the doctor he claims to be Caligari.
Wiene’s masterpiece was released in 1919, soon after the Treaty of Versailles, and the film most assuredly mirrors the German national psyche after the humiliating armistice which would ultimately leave behind the bitterness that flowered into the darkness of Nazism. The expressionistic touches are there for all to see, from the artificial sets to the distorted camera angles and exaggerated emoting of the actors. Clerks sit on crooked high chairs while guests such as the Doctor cower in the corner, which one could easily equate to the victorious Allies lording it over the defeated and crestfallen German nation. The town of Holstenwall is out of a demented fairy tale and looks forward to the town towered over by Chernabog in the Moussorgsky segment of Fantasia. Everything here is not what it seems, personified in the twist that finally turns the whole thing on its head. Or does it? Is it rather the asylum which is a nightmarish dream and is Francis actually telling the truth? Of course we’ll never know, but each repeated viewing brings new clues that help one pick the truth from madness.
It has long been the subject of debate what Caligari’s influence really was. Certainly it’s the purest vision of German expressionism, with later efforts such as Der Golem and Nosferatu equally owing their visual sheen to Gothic horror and myth. It was also the cheapest to shoot (for under $20,000) and at times resembles a carnival attraction, rather like the somnambulist himself. Though Caligari itself borrowed the somnambulist’s costume from the master criminals in Feuillade’s Les Vampires, it’s more influential than influenced by, with sequences looking ahead to later German films, as well as Dead of Night, the dream sequence from Spellbound and even Whale’s Frankenstein. Such a legacy may explain the film’s allure the best part of a century on; it represents our darkest fears as if shot like an eternal nightmare, its influences being those on our dreams and our mind. Wiene himself never succeeded to remotely the same level again, which tends to suggest that the genius came from the iconic photography and, in particular, the set design, which towers over everything. “There are spirits…everywhere they are around us” the first caption reads and, if Caligari neither upholds or disproves that fact, German expressionism itself would play with that notion for over a decade.