Eight decades ago, Dr. Caligari had just the cure for the sluggish growth of an infant cinema. Use only as directed. Restlessness and feelings of infinite despair may occur.
You may be rolling your eyes at the moment, either in response to a certain 13-letter word above or in expectation of a consciousness-challenging, glorified term paper. We at Film Threat try to engage and enrage our audience, but every once in a while we just might try to enlighten them. Though German Expressionism lasted for less than ten years and concerns a very small number of films, the masterworks have cast a shadow that will extend far past today. A single film casts a larger shadow than all the rest, and it was unveiled for the first time on February 27, 1920. All I’m doing is reminding you why it’s important and why you should care. We can start by answering some of your simpler questions:
Q: OK, WHAT THE HELL IS EXPRESSIONISM?
Expressionism is a style and movement made popular in the art world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead of creating an objective or realistic image, the idea is that the artist seeks to reflect his emotional/psychological state or provoke such a state through distortion and exaggeration of the image. In other words, it’s not about what you see, it’s what you feel. As you might expect, this line of thinking favors stronger, more dramatic emotional states like fear, despair, and anger.
No one really applied these concepts in the new medium of motion pictures until 1920, though the principles are often used today. While some filmmakers carefully scrutinized how that crazy art direction could magnify and enhance the desired effects of their movies, others just want to call unwarranted attention to their otherwise crappy films. As an example: Tim Burton made the first “Batman” film look that way to provoke the feeling of an oppressive and claustrophobic city. Kinka Usher probably made “Mystery Men” look the way it did so it would look kind of like “Batman”.
Q: WHY DOES FILM THREAT GIVE A S**T?
You know, Americans regularly display an appalling ignorance about stuff as basic as 20th century history. In a recent poll in the Los Angeles Times, a survey was taken to see how many people support forcing Japan to apologize and make reparations for their war crimes. 60% stated a desire to leave it all in the past. What was not stated was how many people surveyed had any clue what those war crimes actually were (ahem, the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731 for starters; go look it up). Personally, I believe you gain a clear picture of the minds of a population by examining their game shows and pornography. (Someone stop FOX before they take the whole country down with them).
OK, that’s not my point. My point is that the willful ignorance is a cause for concern of the newest generation of film enthusiasts. The extent of their knowledge doesn’t seem to extend as far back as the John Hughes’ teen flicks. You think I’m kidding? Of the five young stars of “The Faculty”, only one had actually seen “The Breakfast Club” from which all of their characters were, uh, ‘homaged’. How the hell can they be expected to identify any of the ’70’s films Tarantino shamelessly steals from?
You may not understand why you should celebrate a style that was in vogue for less than the expected career span of N’Sync and is represented by the handful of odd, silent, black-and-white films that survive. That’s why we take this time to explain what is probably the foundation of, or at least an influence on many of your favorite films.
Q: WHY SHOULD ANYBODY ELSE CARE?
In its brief run, the prized fruit of this genre advanced the basic language of film nearly as much as it promoted radical new ideas about style and substance. New possibilities were made apparent. To many, these were the first “art” films. Some of these works would later define the look of your favorite horror films, science fiction films, and film noir, among others.
“Metropolis” is directly responsible for the look and themes of “Blade Runner”. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is considered the first real horror film and claims bragging rights for such now common elements as menacing shadows, zombies, the unconscious maiden carried off by the monster, and the stupid white guy who inadvertently volunteers to die first.
These flicks launched the careers of a group of brilliant filmmakers that would soon dominate Hollywood. Many of today’s auteurs owe them a massive debt. Would we have any of the works of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, or Tim Burton? What about underground favorites like Guy Maddin and Alejandro Jodorowsky?
So pervasive is this influence that even the newest Red Hot Chili Peppers video, for “Otherside”, is a blazing tribute to the film that launched the whole shebang.
Hell, German Expressionism is wholly responsible for “Batman”; both the original comic books and the first two features (I don’t really know what all that later disco stuff was all about.)
Q: WHERE DID IT ALL THIS WEIRDNESS COME FROM?
Hey, nothing springs fully-formed out of a void. Public exhibition of (very short) films began in the 1890’s, but it took a while to advance the new medium from just a novelty. Thanks largely to early innovators such as Georges Melies and D.W. Griffith, new filmmakers around the world learned how to tell stories.
A former magician, the innovative Melies revealed many of the possibilities of the camera. By shear volume of work, Griffith perfected many of the narrative techniques that culminated in his first epic, “Birth of a Nation” in 1915. However objectionable in content, it demonstrated the immense power of the medium to communicate to the masses. Still, most early directors had their hands full just telling a story, usually a simple re-enactment of historical events or from real life. No one got too complex in the presentation. It was enough trouble for the directors and editors to figure out how to break a scene down into multiple shots. A “signature” style wasn’t even a comprehensible option.
Meanwhile, the Teutonic film industry got kick-started by German general Erich Ludendorff. In 1917, he felt the need to limit the influence of foreign films, so he ordered the consolidation of the German production, distribution, and exhibition companies while providing government subsidies for the new corporation now called Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft, or UFA. The inconvenience of losing World War I in 1919 then kick-started nearly three severely crappy decades for the Germans.
While it may not be necessary to endure turbulence and trauma to generate great art, it usually helps. It seemed all institutions threatened to collapse all around the populace. Throw in the specter of fascism, and the German people did not lack inspirational turmoil. In fact, they were probably ready for something different that reflected their rising fears and anxieties; perhaps a reaction to the staid costume dramas and tired realism that infested the theatres. Every generation should have a “Blue Velvet”. Every generation should have a work of art that will wake them up.
Q: WHY CELEBRATE NOW?
Ground zero can be traced to Berlin’s Marmorhaus theatre in early 1920. For weeks, the city was littered with posters of a strange, pale man with just the words, “Wo ist Caligari?” (“Who is Caligari”) or “”Du Musst Caligari Werden” (“You Must Become Caligari”). On February 27, the theatre hosted the German premiere of “Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari” (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”).
…AND NOW ON WITH THE SHOW.
All caught up now? Too bad; the movie’s starting. Let’s move on with a closer look at the landmark film that launched a million goth kids, “THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI”
As we open, we find our hero, Francis (Friedrich Feher), seated in a spooky garden listening to a story told by an older friend. Suddenly, his beloved Jane (Lil Dagover) appears out of the trees, ghost-like. As she sleepwalks across the grounds, Francis now reveals his own tragic tale. Shifting back in time to the town of Holstenwall, we rejoin Francis, Jane, and her other suitor, Alan (Heinrich von Twardowski). All the architecture has now transformed into oppressive segments thrusting at odd angles bathed in the threatening shadows of an expressionist painting come to life (courtesy of designers Hermann Warm, Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig). What we see are the perceptions of a troubled mind.
The three friends wander to a visiting carnival. They are drawn to the tent of the REALLY strange Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). He presents a wooden box to his side, which reveals Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist, or sleeping man (from which the band Bauhaus stole their entire look). Caligari dares the audience to come forth and allow the entranced Cesare to predict their future. Alan promptly initiates the long and grand tradition of stupid white folks with very unreliable survival skills and asks the man, “How long will I have to live?” The answer, of course, is that he’ll be “Dead by dawn.”
When Alan’s body is discovered the next day, Francis suspects that odd doctor. He slides deeper into paranoia after the somnambulist abducts Jane in the night. Searching for Cesare’s master, Francis visits the insane asylum, only to find Caligari in charge of the place. Francis confronts the man with a team of guards, and the doctor is forced into a straightjacket. Searching Caligari’s office, Francis discovers a document that describes a mad, 11th century monk who trained a somnambulist to kill on command.
This is where weird, cryptic fun REALLY ensues. We abruptly return to Francis in the garden. He walks away, directly into courtyard of the asylum, where he encounters a clearly insane Jane. Spotting Caligari once again as the asylum’s director, our now disturbed hero screams for the guard to restrain the killer. They do. The guards promptly straightjacket the very disturbed Francis and toss him in a cell. At the close, the director exhibits surprise that this young man thought the doctor himself was Caligari, but promised a cure now that he understood the nature of Francis’ delusions. Framed by the park scenes, the rest of the film was only the tortured hallucinations of our narrator.
… AND ITS GENESIS.
Befitting a truly collaborative art form such as film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” had its genesis in the pain and experience of two men: screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz.
By 1919, the pair shared a Berlin flat, but six years earlier, Janowitz witnessed a murder while walking near Hamburg harbor. The young poet was able to identify the features of the killer before he melted into the shadows. Days later, Janowitz attended the victim’s funeral, when he identified the murderer in the crowd who, frighteningly, seemed to recognize him.
After relating the story to Mayer, Hans learned of his friend’s distress over confrontations with an army psychiatrist during the war and the suicide of his father.
The story took shape when the duo later attended a fair. There, they witnessed an “electrical” man who could exhibit fantastic strength from a hypnotized state. While under the influence, the man would mutter disturbing comments to the audience. During the following six weeks, the pair completed the basis for “Caligari” with the visual conception intact.
Reportedly, there was one other major contributor to the script. Erich Pommer agreed to produce what he saw as inexpensive production that could appeal to the then current market for “Grand Guignol” (as you might remember from the play in “Interview with a Vampire”; it’s the forefather of the slasher flick). Pommer had really wanted Fritz Lang to direct, who was hot off the successful serial, “Spiders”. While Lang would later direct the masterpieces “M” and “Metropolis”, he was already committed to other projects. He did realize the possibilities of the radical artistic approach, but suggested the realistic framing sequence in the garden to define the context of the rest of the film for the audience.
Pommer eventually brought in director Robert Weine who would never make another film as artistically or critically successful (though it sure never stopped him from trying).
At this juncture is where some of the original “creative differences” rear their ugly head. Mayer and Janowitz wanted nothing to do with the framing sequence as it obviously changed the entire meaning the film. It’s been suggested the writers intended the film to be a political allegory. Caligari represented the German military leaders of the war while Cesare was the German people led into death. The supposed guardian of the people was the source of their destruction, or some nonsense to that effect. The new version gave the endeavor some inscrutable charm that is echoed in the finales of films like “Santa Sangre” and the final episode of “The Prisoner”.
…AND ALL THE REST.
“Caligari” was only the start. Over the next few years, many films shared the broad elements of the original, but I’d say Lang’s “Metropolis” was the only one to reach as far visually and artistically. An excellent sampling is provided by the newly released “Masterworks of German Horror Cinema” DVD box set from Elite Entertainment. The collection contains “Caligari”; F.W. Murnau’s legendary “Nosferatu”; and the rarely seen 1920 version of “The Golem” from writer/actor/director Paul Wegener, who portrayed the title monster (whose source material was likely the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Some films, such as Weine’s own vampire tale, “Genuine”, currently exist only in fragments. By the time “Metropolis” debuted in 1927, the style was quickly falling out of fashion. Other notable films of the movement were Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” and Weine’s “The Hands of Orlac”, both in 1924; E.A. duPont’s “Variete” in 1925; and G.W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” in 1929.
At this point, you might wonder why this period ended so quickly. One reason might be incompetence in the execution or a half-assed appoach. “Caligari”-director Weine was guilty of this in his very next film, “Genuine”. Another cause of this stylistic demise was the Nazis rise to power. Hitler was none too crazy about such “decadent” artistic movements (He was just crazy). For many of the best and brightest of the German film industry, it felt like a good time to get the hell out of Dodge City, sparking a large migration to Los Angeles.
WARNING: BEGIN ODD RANT
Hopefully, by now, some of you might be worked up enough to explore some of these movies, but you should first ask whether you might actually enjoy them. Film classes have a bad habit of ramming “classic” films down your throat because they’re good for you. Yes, I understand how innovative Sergei Eisenstein was, but his films don’t really speak to me much, or at all to the “Nintendo” generation after me. I’m convinced most film students only echo the sentiment that “Citizen Kane” is the greatest movie ever to evade the withering contempt of their instructors. While the narrative structure is innovative, I may just not be knowledgeable enough to know the source from where Orson Welles appropriated it. I’ve also had the sneaking suspicion that the primary motivation for the structure was so Welles could excuse the use of different film styles employed for the flashbacks of different characters. Call me crazy, but if we really reacted to film in such a strictly intellectual sense, Peter Greenaway would be the biggest filmmaker in the world. The response to art that counts is the emotional one, and “Kane” always struck me too much as the work of a not yet mature artist trying too hard to prove how clever he is.
END OF ODD RANT.
OK THEN…BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?
Let’s look at the new DVD copy of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.
Now, if you’re not in the habit of viewing silent films, I would never start with this one. If, in the 1970’s, you only ever watched Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood flicks, you’d probably have some difficulties if you wandered into “Eraserhead” by mistake. The way the population absorbs information and the sheer quantity a person takes in has changed considerably every decade. “Caligari” had a large number of cuts for its time, but it can now seem plodding if you’re not ready for it, especially as that era wasn’t so big on camera movement. It may be nitpicky, but the print could use some serious restoration, as well.
The greatest annoyance here would be the music. Film score theory was none too developed at the time, though I don’t know if the score provided on disk bears any resemblance to those actually performed during the original release. The music provided by Elite is so generic that it could have easily accompanied either Tom Mix or Charlie Chaplin. You’re better off turning off the sound so this score can’t undercut the images on the screen.
With those caveats in mind, maybe drugs and alcohol couldn’t hurt the experience, either. Anyway, once you are in the proper mental state to watch this masterpiece, whatever that may entail, you can still get a great deal out of it.
This leads me to ask one final question: Why should we celebrate this particular 80-year-old film?
We celebrate what this spooky, old gem still has much to teach us. In 1919, there were no blueprints engraved in stone to rigidly indicate how to make a feature. This new breed of filmmakers had to work it out for themselves. That year, a great deal of talent got together with some funny ideas and made up the rules as they went along. Their conviction, talent, and hard work created a strange, little movie that outlived them all. Isn’t that a good enough reason to party?