Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Wiene (1920)
Nosferatu - F.W. Murnau (1922)

Here we have a double-feature of silent horrors from the dawn of cinema. Both are German and from the early-'20s, but quite different from each other in reality. I don't think I'll get into any political readings, but it would be remiss not to mention that Germany had been very very recently defeated in The Great War. Not sure how the war experience might play into either film, but I'm sure there's some of that in there...

Both also appear on the latest Sight & Sound poll as well.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
dir. Robert Wiene. 1920, Germany.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #127 / Directors' #132
Roger Ebert's Great Movies
Public Domain download/stream from
BFI DVD from Amazon [tons of value options too]
Watch via Netflix / YouTube (free) / Amazon Instant / iTunes

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari trailer (1964)

I'm no expert on German Expressionism, but Caligari's got plenty of unique style. I am up on my Fritz Lang Metropolis (1927, S&S #36), but that was sleek and majestic by comparison. These radical angles and patterns are more disorienting and claustrophobic.

"The prophecy of the Somnambulist!"

So, how do you grade on a curve? I'm pretty sure the acting and production values wouldn't fly anymore. Maybe one day, I'll get more used to silent-era acting, as I eventually did with pre-naturalistic acting. Regardless of the budget, the set design was fantastic. Obviously stagey, but the art mountain backdrop, surreal cityscapes and rooftops, all interiors, the mountain pass, the way depths and heights of field are handled... Super-impressive!

Although the plot has some corny aspects, give it some credit. It moves fast and stays intriguing, and in several cases avoids (predates) some annoying clichés. When the main character's romantic rival is killed, you can wonder for awile whether maybe he did it - but then we move on! When some random thug is caught using the killing spree for cover, he admits to attempted murder but swears he didn't do the others. Fine, we've got crimes to solve! When told their respected colleague is an evil genius, the doctors investigate these ravings rather than wasting a bunch of scenes ignoring the warnings until more are dead. I'm not saying a good movie has to get it done in 70 minutes, but this month has definitely seen some unnecessary 160+ minute bloat.

Whoa! I just read that Cesare would play Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca 20 years later (1942).

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
Might get a little random here. The value DVD wouldn't work in my player, and I'm sure there's a wide range of quality for various products and versions (public domain). Ended up watching the streaming version on Netflix, which was fine. Some 1996 restoration with new music, not sure which - seems like there might have been two. As I was watching, I started wondering about the color tinting used throughout (yellow for daylight, blue for night & shadows, lavender for the lady's home)... I couldn't tell if that was original or modern post-production, and if the latter, was it 'colorization' or based on the original presentation style? That link discusses various "tinted nitrate prints from film archives," and it seems like there are interpretations and choices to be made. So not original tinting, but added based on film research - good.

The end sections of the film might not be quite as awesome, but there's some interesting stuff. An early flashback (apparently not the first ever), the insane text hallucinations ("Du musst Caligari werden!" / "You have to become Caligari!"), a reference to 1703 (216 years, flash-forward to Vargtimmen!)... and a twist ending of sorts. Would have been interesting if the angular architecture had been dropped during the coda, along with the Caligari face. Still, great enough that I'm actually going to seek out a better restoration / version, and pick up a DVD that will actually play.

O yeah, I thought I'd seen Caligari before, but now I'm thinking not. I'm positive I've seen the next one - though long ago in the mists of time.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu [eine Symphonie des Grauens]
dir. F.W. Murnau. 1922, Germany.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #117 / Directors' #322
Roger Ebert's Great Movies
Public Domain download/stream from
Kino DVD from Amazon [tons of value options too]
Watch via Netflix / YouTube (free) / Amazon Instant / Hulu-Plus / iTunes

Nosferatu 'trailer' (????)

The public-domain value DVD travails continue. This one would play. But a few minutes in, I realized the credits and subtitles were talking about Bram Stoker, Dracula, Jonathon and Nina Harker. Beyond getting names wrong, one thing I do know about Nosferatu is that Murnau was sued by Bram Stoker's widow to prevent use of the novel's details. So the characters' names were changed, and the plot remained basically the same. Out with the DVD - back to Netflix!

Count Orlok: I am going to buy the house... the beautiful house opposite yours...

Netflix has a version with music by the Silent Orchestra - I did not like it, at all. Very distracting almost the entire time, so that might color my impressions. Anyway, the Plague is a big mystery, and Renfield's (I mean Knock) got a letter with some crazypants writing and kindergarten drawings, there's a were-hyena, and I keep hissing "Nosssferatuuu!" like the grandpa in George Romero's Martin (1976). Catbus super-carriage warp-speed is awesome!

Cap'n Max
Max Schreck is justifiably famous for this role - he's terrific too! Lots of good moments, but the pacing doesn't stand up. Everything to do with the ship's passage is good, like the coffin-pult riser. Maybe one too many stop-motion tricks but most are quality, like the hearse getaway. Quite a bit of neat cinematography, like the river rafting and good ol' cemetery beach - but none of the stylistic overdose that was Caligari.

Actually most of my notes are positive, except for the inordinate amount of text on the title cards (at least in this version). The sight of Count Orlok carrying his coffin around... what was it, Weisburg? Man, if you're worried about Plague, maybe nab the guy carting around a coffin full of gravedirt and rats!! The mob chase scene is probably fairly influential, and Orlok's shadow creeping is very effective.

Good stuff overall. Once I sort the right Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I might look for a more Astral version of Nosferatu - no Stoker, best music, and whatever can be done about the title card font(s) and/or overload.

No comments: