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.
Familiarity with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the totem of German Expressionism, cannot dim its angular beauty, nor its power to baffle and tease. This luridly geometric film invites a wild accompaniment, one that will embrace its puzzles and schlocky plot twists, and so Caligari pops up time and again in repertory cinemas, with scores veering from rock to electronica to jazz and all points in between. Martyn Jacques of punk-cabaret adventurists The Tiger Lillies has answered the call, and his theatrical, seedy style couldn’t be more simpatico.
Jacques has set up a short residency in the West End’s Soho Theatre this summer, playing his Caligari score night after night in a basement cabaret bar that’s a few shades too salubrious for that sleazy Weimar vibe. The venue wins on atmosphere, then, but the downside of watching a film in a bar rather than a cinema becomes obvious the moment we clock that we’ll be a watching Caligari on DVD, projected a little wonkily at that.
But we’re here for the Martyn Jacques show, and I’m happy to squint and imagine his folksy-sinister piano-accordion-vocal score accompanying the real deal. If Jacques’ music can shine tonight, it will worthy of a showing that will please the projection purists too. And Jacques’ music does shine. He says that he was inspired to write his score by his childhood piano teacher, who worked as a film accompanist in the silent era, and clearly he was an observant pupil. Jacques’ piano proves nicely responsive to the film, turning, pausing, and marching when the film does. His punchy accordion, too, can screech with the high-strung horror of it all, or rumble along as a creepy echo of the fairground’s barrel organ. The occasional foot stomp adds drama, and acknowledges the fact that this is a musical, hummable score – the audience are nodding their heads, tapping their toes, as we go.
What’s really distinctive about Jacques’s score, though, is his vocal, which can switch between a low grumble and a rising falsetto. It’s dramatic, percussive and at its best, when quietly threatening, a low non-verbal bass line for the piano melody. Mostly, though, Jacques is singing his own colourful lyrics: a musical narration for the film that goes out of its way to introduce the carnival’s bit-part characters and to explore the fears and motivations of the film’s leading players.
Those lyrics are the score’s fatal flaw: often what Jacques is singing differs from what’s on screen in some small but important detail. His lyrics can clash with the intertitles, making the viewing experience anything but immersive. At worst his words can pre-empt the next plot twist, which sadly dissolves the horror-movie tension. Occasionally, the lyrics and the film are in different worlds altogether. At these times, one suspects this score to be in reality a rehearsal for a project such as Jacques’s hit grotesque operetta Shockheaded Peter. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, a cabaret Caligari with puppets? I think it could be a another smash, in Jacques’ hands.
As I said earlier, this is Martyn Jacques’ show, and while his Chaplin-death-mask makeup and fruity lyrics may threaten to steal the limelight from the movie, his fluid score reveals a real sensitivity to the art of silent film accompaniment. Perhaps he has his eyes on other horizons, but I’d be more than happy to hear another silent score from such an exuberant talent.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari screens at the Soho Theatre in London until 11 August 2012. To find out more and to buy tickets, visit the Soho Theatre website.
Well I do enjoy posting news of silent film screenings, but 12 in a row takes some beating. Martyn Jacques, of punk-cabaret band The Tiger Lillies, will perform his own score to expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at the Soho Theatre this summer four days a week, three weeks on the trot. Jacques is known for his eccentric performances and his powerful falsetto voice – he will accompany himself and the film on piano and accordion.
It’s very lazy blogging to copy and paste Wikipedia. However, this is really all the introduction to Mr Jacques you’ll need I feel:
Martyn Jacques spent 7 years living above a brothel in Soho while training his characteristic falsetto voice. In his Tiger Lillies appearances, Jacques commonly sings about “sexual perversions, seedy underbellies, the gruesome, macabre and visceral”. Jacques has been described as enjoying when audience members walk out of his shows, noting “It’s always funny when people are offended by what I do … after all, I’m just an entertainer.”
So this is clearly not going to be your common-or-garden silent film screening. However, Jacques is a devotee of silent cinema and this is a very personal project for him:
‘When I was fourteen my childhood desire to play the piano was finally satisfied. My first teacher was Florence De Jong. This was forty years ago and Florence was a very old lady. She had been a famous theatre organist accompanying silent films. She was so good she made gramophone recordings. I’ve always remembered her and this is my tribute to her and the profession. Silent films were for me the golden age of film. They had a magic and enigma you don’t get with talkies. Dr Calagari is a fine example. A freak show in the fairground…