08 January, 2006

On Dr. Caligari

I watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari last night; it is fantastic. This opinion was a foregone conclusion. Just as when my wife reads the latest (and last, in this case) Dorothy Sayers novel, I know that when I see a 1919 psycho-horror movie with Expressionist sensibilities, my reaction will be generally positive. The older fantasies, in the broader sense of the word, are far superior: Metropolis, King Kong, Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, Intolerance, Modern Times, The Wizard of Oz. The excellent Eraserhead, though much later, is also in the Expressionist tradition. There's a certain darkness in the design, animation, effects, and a certain powerful quiet, that is missing in today's slick CGI extravaganzas; the world is never entirely real, and never attempts to be real, but rather holds itself apart from the viewer as some kind of uncanny otherworld, where the makeup is thick, the sets are stylised, the monsters are jerky, and oftentimes our view is grainy and obscure. The crucifixion scene in Intolerance is just like that—a dim, nebulous morass of tiny figures on a red-tinted pane, the only clue to the scene being a tiny Christ-figure in the upper-left.

I didn't like everything about Caligari. The dialogue-screens, with their jagged shapes and 'Expressionist' typography, seem more 1987 than 1919, and too much of the story-background is given away before the final twist. But the sets and acting are sublime. My father-in-law once remarked, in a discussion of Hoffmann's 'The Forest Warden', that Italy seems to represent mystery and magic to the Germans (personally I suspect it's a Romantic obsession with the cloak-and-dagger intrigue and occult traditions of the High Renaissance)—and the same applies to this film, which is very Hoffmannesque. Macabre and quiet: Arvo Pärt should write a score for it.

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