Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. You can read more of her reviews at silverembers.com
The name “Dr Caligari” may cause a shudder to those of a weaker disposition. The eponymous character of the 1920 classic Das Cabinets des Dr Caligari has long been a figure of terror – and with good reason. The film has been described not just as one of the first “horror” films, but one of the first examples of a movie generating a real psychological uneasiness in its audience. Caligari has been labelled in many different ways – German expressionism, horror story, psychological thriller and a classic of the silent era – but it was also Germany’s first postwar cinematic success, and it reflects the anguish of the people who had been through four terrible years.
Thanks to those classic expressionist touches, the sharp and angled sets, gothic imagery and expressionist undertones, Caligari was as visually frightening as its narrative. More recent audiences may have also been unsettle by the poor physical condition of prints of the film. Despite numerous attempts to finesse the quality of the film – first by the Filmmuseum München in 1980 and followed by the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the Lumière European MEDIA project in 1995 – imperfections were still evident: visible scratches, jumps and blank screens, blurred title cards, unstable images and bleached-out, near-featureless faces.
Caligari’s story is told in partial flashback as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells the tale of the horrors that he and fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) have endured at the hands of the Doctor. One day Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend a local carnival where they watch the act of Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) “who has slept for 23 years but will tonight wake from his dream-like trance”. The only time Cesare speaks is to tell carnivalgoers their fortune. Cesare “knows the past and sees the future” and when Felix asks “how long will I live?” his serious, haunting response is: “To the break of dawn”. Yet the fear is not restricted to the carnival. At night Cesare is woken by Caligari to do his deathly bidding, and so begins a series of murders, abductions and mental unravelling.
A drink, a snack and a temptingly toothsome silent movie? Perhaps with some live music too? And all in one of the coolest venues in London? I am super-excited to announce that Barts Pathology Museum (as promised, here on these very pages) is hosting a short silent film season in January. The films have been chosen because we think they are fabulous, and because they also have some relation to the research and study that goes on at Barts.
First, a recap. If you don’t know Barts Pathology Museum, that is because it is one of the capital’s best-kept secrets – a stunning Grade II listed 19th-century hall where quirky medical specimens are displayed. The hall has a glass roof, because once upon a time medical students would dissect cadavers there. You can read more about the history of the museum and its many fascinating artefacts on the museum blog, here. Entry to the museum is by appointment only, but the doors are open on selected evenings for a series of lectures and events on subjects ranging from film noir to taxidermy to dentistry. Your humble scribe was there last November, giving an illustrated talk on silent cinema.
The January screenings are supported by Hendrick’s Gin, and entry to each film includes a G&T and some delicious, freshly popped popcorn as well as the film. I will be there to introduce the screenings and the the first movie in the series features live musical accompaniment, too. Here’s what’s coming up in the new year.
Fresh from a theatrical release and a flurry of Halloween shows, Nosferatu springs into life on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. This new release is an update of the label’s previous DVD, but features the Symphony of Horror in gleaming 1080p glory, with a handful of new features as a bonus prize.
This is a precious object then, a totemic silent film in beautiful packaging and supported by more supporting material in the form of articles, audio commentaries, interviews and documentary footage than you could possibly expect. Apparently, there has been more work done to improve on the 2007 restoration – if you’ve seen this in the cinema already you know how pristine the prince of darkness looks here. And that is so important. Nosferatu is far more than shadows. Arguably, rewatching Nosferatu on Blu-Ray at home, rather than at an amped-up and spooky live show, you enjoy its gorgeousness rather than the horror thrills: those painterly landscapes in their pastel tints. There’s nothing like the black-white-red-purple palette of modern gothic horror here – which keeps the film fresh but always uncanny. The music helps, too. The score from Nosferatu’s first run plays up the prettiness and romance – until it can’t hold out any longer.
Do we need to recap? I’ll do this at high speed, like Orlok’s spectral carriage dashing through an ethereal white forest. Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in all but name, with the action transferred to Germany. Max Shreck is the snuggle-toothed vampire Orlok, the young and preternaturally talented FW Murnau sits in the director’s chair. The movie was produced and designed by Albin Grau, an artist with a keen interest in the occult. And it’s brilliant: both beautiful and terrifying. A horrific spooky story, with eerie contemporary import. Remember that Europe has just come out the other side of a world war and a brutal flu epidemic, then look again at the devastation wreaked by Orlok here.
In fact, even if you’ve never seen a second of Nosferatu, you’ll know its most famous shot: Orlok’s hunched shadow stretching up the wall as he climbs the stairs. That shot has became a visual shorthand for horror, for imminent danger. It’s remarkable, by contrast with all the films that have appropriated the stair shot, that Murnau’s Nosferatu avoids any such shortcuts: turning leafy landscapes into places of horror, playing violence as romance, and romance as violence. Nonagenarian special effects such as Orlok packing himself into his coffin, and later lurching out of it, still feel vibrant. Perhaps that’s partly because this is a relatively decorous scary movie, with just a few drops of blood standing in for Orlok’s grotesque appetite. Murnau drenches Orlok’s victims in creeping shadows, rather than cascading gore. You’ll jump like a child at the sight of a rat, believe me.
But even if you remember those shocks from a long-ago screening, I would urge you to acquaint yourself much more closely with this poetic, audacious film. There’s far more here than a textbook paragraph on Expressionism can brief you on. Each repeat viewing brings something new to the fore, and that’s where the MoC treatment excels. Let me see, this disc contains two audio commentaries (one by R Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens from 2007, and another by David Kalat, who is so charming and impressively knowledgable that we’ll let him off for describing Stoker as an Englishman), two interviews (an previously seen chat with Abel Ferrara, and a new one with BFI Film Classic author Kevin Jackson). There’s a German language doc, which includes lots of location footage, and a booklet of articles and gorgeous images. The new commentary and interview are particularly sharp on unpacking myths around Nosferatu, from the etymological origin of the name to Grau’s spiritualist beliefs.
Take it from me, you need more Nosferatu in your life.
Glad tidings from east London. The capital’s newest cinema, the Hackney Picturehouse on Mare Street, also boasts the capital’s newest silent film screening venue. Hackney Attic hosts all kinds of live music and cinema events, scheduled by an outfit called Filmphonics. They have already dipped their toe into the silent waters with a sold-out screening of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, complete with belly dancers. Now Filmphonics are officially launching a series of monthly screenings with an event that is sure to be popular – a screening of the nightmarishly creepy The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with live accompaniment from rock band Minima. if you’ve never seen Minima accompany a silent film, you’ve been missing out. They’re a rock band, albeit one with a cheeky cello, who specialise in the kind of spine-chilling soundscapes perfect for a film this creepy and strange.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari screens at Hackney Attic on Sunday 22 April 2012. Doors open at 6.30p and the films begins at 7.50pm. Tickets for the screening cost £9, but less for concessions and members. Alternatively you can buy a dinner ticket, which includes the movie, a meal and a glass of wine for £20. That’s a pretty unbeatable night out, I’d say. Tickets are available online here.
The Roundhouse in Camden has long been one of London’s most inventive and atmospheric arts venues – and now it has just had a radical, zoetrope-inspired makeover courtesy of artist Ron Arad. What could be better? Perhaps a late-night screening of the mind-bending expressionist horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with cool electronic accompaniment.
The illustrious Berlin-based electronic music label Innervisions joins forces with Ron Arad to present a spell binding evening of film, music and artistic installation. The evening will feature a projection of the epic 1920’s classicDr. Caligari with Innervision’s Henrik Schwarz, Ame and Dixon performing a live score they’ve written to accompany the film.
The evening also features a live DJ set in collaboration with the technical and aesthetic expertise of Arad’s studio to project a range of stunning visuals by Berlin visual collective JUTOJO, providing a completely immersive and unique experience for the audience.
Tickets cost £25 or £18 for concessions. Doors open at 7.30pm and the film will begin at 8.30pm. To find out more, and to book tickets, visit the Roundhouse website.
The much-heralded return of the midnight movie is not confined to London. Oh no. Spooky silent film soundtrackers Minima are bringing the concept to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year with witching-hour screenings of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari six nights in a row. Every night from 22-28 August, the band will be accompanying the landmark Expressionist horror film in Assembly George Square Gardens and the screenings start at one minute to midnight. Here’s a taster of what you can expect to see and hear:
Tickets cost £10 or £12 depending on the date. For more details and to book tickets, click here.
If you haven’t seen Pandora’s Box (1929) before, I’m actually a little jealous of you. This film and its notorious leading lady are so irrepressibly gorgeous that your first viewing really should be a big-screen experience – and this is the perfect opportunity.
By the end of the 1920s Louise Brooks had had her fill of Hollywood, and Hollywood had pretty much had its fill of her. Lucky, then, that she caught the eye of German director GW Pabst and moved to swinging Weimar Berlin to take the lead role in Pandora’s Box. Brooks plays Lulu, a hedonistic dancer who pursues her own pleasure at the expense of bourgeois morality, or pretty much anyone’s morality, come to mention it. The role has come to define Brooks and rightly so. Who hasn’t, when watching Brooks shake her iconic bob, thought: “That girl could get away with murder”? Pandora’s Box puts that theory to the test like no other movie, and Brooks’s sensual performance radiates here – even as events take a series of sinister turns and the film transforms from a backstage comedy, to a thriller, to something approaching horror.
Keep an eye out for your chance to win a pair of free tickets to Pandora’s Box next week, here on Silent London
Pandora’s Box screens at the Prince Charles Cinema on Thursday 26 May at 8.30pm. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by the marvellous John Sweeney. Tickets cost £10 or £6 for members and they’re available here.
Who says silent film screenings can’t be cutting-edge? Excuse the bad joke, please. The Sci-Fi London film festival is putting on a screening of Der Golem (1920) and the music will be provided by Sawchestra, who play saws (obviously) as well as toy instruments and other found objects. What’s more, they’ll be handing out some more instruments to the crowd, as they’re very big on audience participation. I can only imagine how rowdy this is going to get – but it sounds like a whole heap of fun.
Der Golem: How He Came Into the World is an early Expressionist horror, full of black magic, high drama and outright weirdness. The plot concerns a rabbi in 16th-century Prague who creates a man out of clay, and then brings him to life to terrorise those who are persecuting the Jews. It’s a little ridiculous, of course, but Karl Freund’s Expressionist cinematography is a treat, and playing along with Sawchestra should be a great opportunity to camp it up and enjoy this strange film.
It’s not all about Russia at the BFI in May. This L’Histoire du “Look” strand is dedicated to the development of visual style in the cinema, as part of the educational Passport to Cinema programme. Quite frankly, all six titles in this first part are worth a gawp, but we’ll restrict ourselves to the silents here – three gems, each shown three times, which should keep the BFI pianists busy.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is here representing the angular, dreamlike world of German Expressionism. The shifting perspectives of the scenery mirror the shifting narrative, where nothing is ever quite what it seems for long.
1 May 3.50pm/2 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/4 May 8.30pm
The Last Laugh (1924), directed by FW Murnau, is remarkable for being (almost) intertitle-free, allowing Karl Freund’s mobile camera and Emil Jannings’s powerful lead performance to to tell the story of a doorman who loses first his job and then his social standing.
4 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/5 May 8.40pm/13 May 6pm
Queen Kelly (1929) is known as a lost film, as star/producer Gloria Swanson walked off set one day, disappointed by director Erich von Stroheim’s less than wholesome interpretation of the Hays-approved script. Von Stroheim was sacked and sections of the film removed; it was later re-edited and completed as Swanson wished. However, the luxurious sets and glamorous costumes we expect from Von Stroheim are all present and correct – as is the melodramatic plot.
Update: The restored 1985 version of Queen Kelly will be screened, which has an orchestral score already, so there will be no live accompaniment.
2 May 3.50pm/9 May 6.10pm (with introduction and short animated film from NFTS)/21 May 8.45pm
All screenings except Queen Kelly have live piano accompaniment. Tickets cost £9.50 or £6.75 for concessions, and less for BFI members. They will be available on 4 April for BFI members and from 11 April for everyone else. More details on the website here.