Sunday, 27 December 2015
German Expressionism : THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)
German Expressionism was a re-energising and influential movement across the arts in Germany beginning around 1905 with the Brücke artists' group in Dresden comprising architectural students Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel and Fritz Blehl. They shunned the stuffy bourgeois conventions of society and the art world. Other artists and theatre creatives were inspired by the movement, creating a vibrant community of synergy between the arts labelled ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where architects might write plays, or an artist may compose music. Expressionism was a backlash against the rigid conformity of a country ruled by the Kaisers, which then flowered during the following Weimar Republic. In films like THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, obedience and respect to regulations was rejected by showing a society of artists, bohemian free-thinkers, those who gave free reign to their passions and anxieties instead of becoming obedient automatons (as also blatantly depicted in another masterpiece, METROPOLIS).
Expressionism was a contradictory philosophy – it was intellectual yet drenched with strong emotion, critical of society yet keen to create a holistic alternative and mistrustful of the emerging mechanisation of new technology. One of the great paradoxes was that for a group opposed to the political brainwashing of the populace as World War One broke out, many advocates of the movement saw it as a great opportunity to erase the old values of an old world and willingly volunteered to fight.
Across the arts, German writer Nietsche introduced the inspirational concept of the ‘superman’ and Richard Wagner’s music harked back to mythical ages of Germanic gods and heroes for stimulation. As the twentieth century began, Freud was influencing the arts with his theories of how our subconscious influences us, and in identifying society’s preoccupations with sex and death he pinpointed themes that would emerge in the films of the Expressionist era.
As the madness of war took its toll in Europe, the backlash amongst artists was the catalyst for the anarchic Dadaist movement in Zurich led by Cabaret Voltaire (1916), and Expressionist painter Conrad Felixmüller helped create the Expressionist Working Group Dresden to engage artists in politically active work reflecting pacifism and socialist ideas. Art that argued for anti-war ideals was not simply a soft expression of peaceful opposition. On canvas, stage and then film, German art creatives dealt in themes of anxiety and terror, reflecting the fears of a nation torn apart as their military suffered the ravages of defeat.
Remarkably for horror film fans, many of the future prime movers of Expressionist horror cinema were cultivated under one roof - Berlin’s Deutches Theater - under the legendary leadership of writer/producer Max Reinhardt. Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss (both later to star in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI), Paul Wegener (director and lead in THE GOLEM films and with Krauss in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE) as well as Emil Jannings (Mephistopheles in FAUST for famed director F.W. Murnau) all worked on plays under Reinhardt before moving into cinema.
Silent film was an ideal medium for Expressionists to expand into because its potential for visual impact could incorporate the emotive, distorted shapes and structures already developed by painters and theatre artists of the movement. This unsettling atmosphere could then be reinforced by the external performances of the actors, embodying the human fears and anxieties of the time in passionate, stylised declamatory acting that delivered staccato bursts of dialogue and a jerky personal or group-choreographed physicality (THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI’s Cesare or METROPOLIS’s robot Maria and drone-like crowd scenes for example).
By 1918, post-war Germany had become a society whose old reliable structures had crumbled. The poor were ravaged by diseases such as Spanish Flu. The Bourgeoisie were no longer insulated by their money - those who hadn’t invested in War Bonds found their wealth decimated by crippling inflation. What could offer them comfort or pleasure? The new entertainment mass medium of motion pictures, one of the few successful industries to emerge from the rubble of conflict. By 1918 Germany had 4,000 cinemas – a million people went to them every day. As in all modern societies, when hardship strikes, films offer transportation to realms of fantasy and escapism. This was a boom time for German cinema, building vast new studios with ambitions to compete with Hollywood. The movie-going public embraced Expressionism, clearly stated in hugely popular films such as THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, THE GOLEM and NOSFERATU. They agreed with its depictions of released passions, bizarre themes and environments, all reflecting a time of upheaval and chaos in society.
This atmosphere of openness to new ideas potentially had darker consequences. In his book, ‘From Caligari to Hitler’, renowned Weimar era film critic Siegfried Kracauer argued that iconic characters of Expressionist film such as Caligari, Mabuse and Nosferatu foreshadowed the rise of Nazism in the new Germany. They were sinister predatory figures, preying on society’s subconscious needs to fulfil their own desires, much as Hitler would seduce the country.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920).
(2014 ‘Masters of Cinema’ Bluray HD Restored version)
This silent film is regarded by most as the classic representative film of the Expressionist era in German cinema. It’s an intense combination of themes, atmosphere, styles of performance and design that illustrate memorably what the movement was aiming to reflect in Germany at the time.
One of the alluring qualities of the film is that the narrative is open to different interpretations. DR CALIGARI deals strongly with reality and illusion, sanity and madness and it is up to the viewer to make their own determination as to which of the main characters has a believable grasp on either.
We open with Francis (Friedrich Feher), the narrator, who is sitting outside with an old man and upon seeing a young woman, Jane, in a trance-state (Lil Dagover) this triggers him to begin telling his story in flashback , focusing on her as his fiancé. By the end of his tale, we cannot be entirely sure that he is a credible guide, particularly as he recounts events he cannot possibly have been privy to. Nonetheless Francis describes going to a local fair with a close friend Alan. They josh about competing for her attention. Elsewhere, the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) applies for a permit to perform his act involving a somnambulist assistant. The town clerk is rude and later is found murdered.
Francis and his friend attend the sideshow, wherein Cesare the sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) awakens in his upstanding coffin and allows the audience to ask him questions. Alan naively asks him “How long will I live?” Cesare chillingly answers that he has until dawn, prompting the young man to react in a mad mixture of delight and shock. Later that night, sure enough Alan is murdered in his bed. The resulting police investigation collars a knife-wielding attempted murdered (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who denies any connection with Alan’s homicide.
Francis spies on Caligari’s home thinking he can see the sleeping Cesare, who in ‘reality’ is at Jane’s home. He creeps menacingly toward her bed, attacks her quasi-sexually and then abducts her through the peculiarly sloping streets. He leaves Jane and then fall down dead, seemingly from the excesses of such unusual exertion. Francis realises the caught criminal now has a water-tight alibi in his cell.
He and the police discover that the sleeping version of Cesare was a cunning dummy. Caligari flees them, with Francis pursuing him to an asylum where he discovers Caligari is the institute’s director and has become obsessed with a mediaeval Italian sorcerer named Caligari, who’d used a somnambulist to commit murder at his command. Francis believes that in the throes of identification with the mystic via a disembodied insistent voice, the modern Caligari (we never know his real name) had co-opted a patient into becoming the Cesare we have seen. Caligari screams “I must become Caligari!”, the hallucinatory order he had been following, and upon being shown Cesare’s corpse, he violently attacks his staff before being subdued and admitted as a patient in his own facility.
The ending is where the film plays its trump card of ambiguity. Back in the present day, we realise that Francis is actually a patient himself. Sharing his day-room is Jane under the illusion she is a queen and a very much alive, though still hypnotised, Cesare. Francis assaults the director and is taken away straitjacketed to the same cell that Caligari had, thus rendring the plot cyclical. The director assured himself that he can cure Francis, now he understands the patient’s mania. Which of them is truly the insane one now?
The script, attributed to Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, was thought to be best served by a fantasy style of visuals rather than naturalistic. Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, celebrated painters and set designers, applied the talent they were noted for as contributors to the Expressionist magazine Der Sturm. All the backgrounds and sets we see in DR CALIGARI are unreal, as though built as backdrops in a theatre production. Houses totter, very few straight sides are used where a sloping angle may curve in a window frame or a street. This creates an eerie, otherworldly edge precisely designed to set us off-kilter and view the scenes as possibly unreal.
To create a spell-binding air of unsettling tension, director Robert Weine (a veteran of silent star Henny Porten’s films) ensured that the actors played in a passionate, stark, at times unsubtle level often marked as Expressionist. Krauss as Caligari has a crazed stare and a wonderful full intensity. Veidt as the sylph-like alien Cesare moves through the film in a truly hypnotic mode, most vividly when he approaches Jane’s sleeping form. He also has penetrating eyes that bore into the audience such as when he first opens them before the show crowd. The full effect of his piercing glare is enhanced by the stunning 2014 HD restoration transfer which highlights all details marvellously and must be credited for the brilliance of its painstaking repair work on the surviving print. Feher creates a sympathetic and naturalistic portrayal of Francis, which is vital in earning our sympathy for his ultimate position.
Cesare (and even Caligari himself) is a forerunner of other perceived monsters in horror film lore like Nosferatu, Frankenstein’s monster and the Golem who are equally worthy of sympathy. Whilst Kracauer felt they were cinematic warnings of future malevolent domination of the masses, they are also arguably in the grip of forces they themselves cannot control. The Golem’s need to create destruction and Cesare’s murderous actions are all on behalf of an outside master who brings a being to life solely to serve as their weapon. Nosferatu’s insatiable lust for blood is an addiction that may qualify as the same irrepressible force acting on its slave - exerting as much misery on the doer as any perception that they are relishing monstrous harm, thus reducing them to the status of a poignant victim.
In playing with our point of view and allegiances in its plot, THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI is a disturbing allegory that in the end proves nothing is what it seemed in post-war Germany. Society’s authority figures and morality could no longer be relied upon in this new world order. Tragically, as the saying goes, if you don’t have a plan for your life someone will make you fit into theirs – and in the rise of Hitler that vacuum was filled with unimaginably atrocious consequences. Happily, the movie’s positive legacy is that after it resonated tremendously with audiences of the time, in later decades it has since become one of the first cult horror movies to gain a huge fanbase.