Silent Steve was on fire! He suggested a film about an old grump, a faux doctor showing off a somnambulist at a town fayre, evil, cold-hearted and full of murder. God, I was in the mood for something downbeat and vicious. Six hours I’d sat in the medical suite, waiting for a medical enema, another hour of lying on alternate sides having fluid fed into my impacted stools, and another hour being sluiced empty. Old Jack was in a piss with the universe – and one manufacturer of chocolate peanuts in particular. Obviously, I cannot mention them here, but the fuckers gave me a day of regret after three family packs of peanutty pleasure. So, blessed be Silent Steve and the maddened tale of murder and first-ever filmic narrative twists that is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Terrific film. And the start of much modern horror stuff, apparently. It starts with Francis (Friedrich Feher giving good normal, which matters) telling a stranger the tale of spirits that have forced him away from home, just as his beloved wafts by in a cloud of ethereal weirdness. This is Jane (Lil Dagover, giving good odd). They’ve had a wretched time of it. Hmm, I thought, you see this scene in the care home grounds quite a lot these days: Mad Maud and her series of visiting ex-lovers have the same floor-level empathy.
Cue flashback. Which is pretty much the rest of the film. Frank starts to tell the story of Holstenwall, now presented in properly strange art work. It is a drawing of a stark, sharp, angled town on a hill, seen from a stark, sharp, angled set that works as road, path and hillock. Possibly. Frank and his buddy Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, giving good youthful and foppish), are having a cheery, “we’ll stay buddies” battle for Dagover’s affections. She seems human and worth the effort at this point.
Meanwhile, in the stark, sharp, angled town, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss giving top quality old and nasty, tubby and glary, gesticulative and chucklesome – your usual evil grandpa-scientist, basically) pops up with a caravan and some advertising to come see the somnambulist. That’s a chap who sleeps and occasionally sleep-walks. And occasionally murders, it turns out. For Cesare the sleeper is a youthful Conrad Veidt in very heavy make-up and a body-stocking. Beyond creepy.
And the creepiness goes on. Caligari goes to get a permit and is snottied at by the town clerk from his stark, sharp, angled office and crazily high chair. The high chair is a theme for officials here, the film not short on visual point scoring. The police have them as well.
Creepy 1 – The clerk is horribly murdered that night in a wash of tinted scenes and shadows.
Creepy 2 – Caligari offers to wake Cesare so he can answer questions from the public. Young Alan asks how long he’ll live. Cesare says until the next morning.
Creepy 3 – More shadows, more murder, Alan is dead.
Frank, needless to say, doesn’t take this too well. He, Jane and the doctor go investigating, but things don’t go brilliantly. Another night and, while Frank and pal peak through Caligari’s window believing they can see the nasty old fox and the sleeping Cesare, elsewhere, well, at Jane’s house, the body-stockinged Cesare is doing the stark, sharp, angled thing and creeping across a long, stylised set to stab Jane to death.
Oh yes. There’s proper tension in this almost-silly scene, the heavily-made-up village mime prancing at glacial pace with a long spike and ugly intention. But he cannot do it – aha! And drags her out, to the alarm of her high-trousered family, onto stark, sharp, angled hills and away.
Okay, there’s a lot more to this story, but that’s enough to be going on with. It is fascinating. I’ve said stark, sharp, angled a lot and you’ll feel it. Every shot of the film is tightly controlled, to the point that shadows and shafts of light are painted onto the sets. Really – we watched a really good quality copy of the film and I took a while to realise they’d done this. Weird, but oddly effective. Realism this ain’t. Everything is shot to be off, as it were – much like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz (1939).
And the story? As an oldster, it is a bit disheartening to realise we can be seen as controlling and evil some times. That’s what this film does. An ancient horror story, for sure, but one that shows Grandpa as a total bastard, controlling the young to enact his spite. That it all seems unreal doesn’t help although you will be impressed by the way stage-craft is presented with fantastic skill, yet still overtaken by quite brilliant film craft. And possibly for the first time: there’s layered plotting, several shocks and a not-unobvious-but-come-on-it’s-the-first-time plot twist at the end. Long-shots become mid-shots only once, if those are the right terms, so the characters are not too intimately known. But they are scary as crap. Caligari himself and the sluggishly feline Cesare are nightmares waiting to pounce.
Okay. And then there’s real life. I shouldn’t research these things. Much like The Last Laugh / Der Letzte Mann (1924) a few years later, this German masterpiece from Robert Wiene is filled with Weimar Republic folk and the ghastliness to follow. Honesty time: I’ll give the film a five, but it’s a difficult thing to do. Many of the cast, the Jewish, the simply anti-Nazi, fled Germany to escape the regime. Others embraced the poison in their nation and stand with condemned reputations.
Krauss is one of them. He embraced Nazism and its anti-semitism, became an active artist in support of Goebbels’ aims and helped to run the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer). He spent the late 1940s being banned and ‘denazified.’
Veidt was not. He married a Jewish woman and escaped to Britain the day the Nazis forced everyone in the German film industry to declare their race. He wasn’t, but he stood by his wife by saying he was Jewish. A loving man.
Dagover was more complicated. She received awards from the Reich and the post-war world, kept to apolitical films that may have influenced the latter, but was still known to be Hitler’s favourite actress. In Caligari, she merely plays mad.
So watch the film, but cut away thoughts of the real world. Then let them in afterwards. This film shows that brilliant, innovative and fantastic people – albeit making trite use of the old – can wrench a form into something that we recognise nearly a hundred years later for its smartness. And they can contain in their number the most retrogressive, repugnant and disgusting forms of thought our species can produce.
How stark, sharp…angled.