Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror / Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Nosferatu (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), the 1922 German film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by the acclaimed and influential F.W. Murnau. An elaborate production, filmed largely on location, it was the first major film to focus on a vampire and has exerted a strong and lasting influence over the 90 years since its release; yet it was almost lost due to the fact that the production studio- Prana Films- never obtained the rights to Stoker’s novel and was sued by his widow, resulting in their declaration of bankruptcy and an order to destroy all copies of the movie. Fortunately, one copy had already been shipped out, and thanks to its survival Nosferatu (as it is now commonly known) was eventually heralded as a true classic, developing a cult following and becoming a cultural icon.

The plot is more or less familiar to anyone who has read or seen Dracula in any of its more “official” versions, but the setting and the names of the characters have been changed, and several new ideas are introduced in addition to the creation of a significantly altered ending. It opens with idyllic scenes of life in the fictional port town of Wisborg; a young man, Thomas Hutter, is being sent to faraway Transylvania by his employer, a real estate agent named Klock, in order to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in their town. Though his beautiful and virtuous wife, Ellen, has dark forebodings about the trip, Hutter leaves her in the care of friends and enthusiastically embarks on his journey. Once he arrives at Orlok’s ruined castle, however, he begins to suspect that the reclusive count- a thin, ghoulish-looking eccentric who evokes deep fear in the local villagers- may have darker intentions than a simple change of scenery; after the deal is finalized, the young man is horrified to discover that his host is indeed a member of the undead, a powerful vampire who sleeps by day in a coffin under the castle- but the knowledge comes too late, for Hutter finds himself imprisoned in his room, watching helplessly from a window as Orlok loads several coffins full of dirt into a wagon and departs for Wisborg. Fearing for the safety of his home town- and especially of his beloved wife- he manages to escape from the castle and begins to make his way back to Wisborg, hoping he can arrive in time. The count, meanwhile, travels by ship, concealed below deck in one of his coffins; along the way, he victimizes every port town at which they stop, leaving behind rumors of plague. He also preys upon the crew, killing them one by one until the boat arrives in Wisborg, seemingly a ghost vessel inhabited only by rats- brought on board within Orlok’s spare coffins. Believing the rodents have carried the spreading plague to their town, the authorities warn the citizens to remain secluded in their homes, and Orlok, having moved into his new abode and using the supposed epidemic as his cover, begins to feed upon the terrified population. When Hutter finally arrives home, he finds that Ellen, to his relief, is so far unharmed, but she is consumed by melancholy and terrified of the new neighbor who stares at her from his window at night. Though her husband tries to hide the truth from her, she discovers from his books the true nature of the threat, and learning that the vampire can only be destroyed by direct sunlight, she resolves to undertake a dire strategy by which she might lure Count Orlok to his doom.

The screenplay for Nosferatu, which has received much praise for its deliberate, rhythmic pacing and its pervading air of cool melancholy, was authored by Henrik Galeen, an Expressionist writer hired by the film’s producers for his expertise in the dark romantic style they wished to capture. Though the great Murnau is usually given credit for the movie’s eerie mise-en-scène, Galeen’s script was in fact quite detailed in its meticulous, shot-by-shot description; he included specific instructions for each scene, with directions for timing, camera angles and composition, and lighting, even providing sketches for reference in framing shots. The result is a haunting, dream-like exploration of the primal fears hiding in the dark corners of man’s imagination, given form through the persistent folklore that has resisted the rise of science and reason since the days of the Black Death. Though the vampire myth is ancient and universal, its most familiar and lasting incarnation springs from the superstitious tales of Central Europe, where bubonic plague wiped out whole medieval villages and prompted the survivors to imagine other-worldly causes for its indiscriminate and unstoppable devastation- not only vampires, but werewolves and other insidious monsters of the night became the dreaded scapegoats for this seemingly unexplainable onslaught of death, and legends of their continuing existence endured throughout the centuries as a reminder of those dark times. Galeen’s scenario, borrowed as it may have been from Stoker’s then-still-fairly-recent novel, stirs up all of these arcane fears embedded in cultural memory. Indeed, before Orlok ever appears onscreen there are scenes of a werewolf prowling the night (with a striped hyena- a bizarre-looking and fearsome creature that was largely unfamiliar to most 1922 moviegoers- standing in for the supernatural beast), and memories of the ancient plague are clearly tapped by the tale’s conceit of using the threat of just such a rat-borne pestilence as a subterfuge to mask Orlok’s killing sprees; even the vampire’s makeup, with his large, pointed ears and pronounced, close-set fangs, is designed to be rat-like and enhance the correlation between monster and disease. Though Nosferatu is set in the 1830s and was made in the 1920s, as we watch it in the 2010s our subconscious is undeniably returned to the Dark Ages, when the night concealed forces which we could neither fathom, foresee, nor combat, and safety was an illusion that could only be maintained by the light of day.

As for Murnau, even if he was guided extensively by the wishes of the screenwriter, his genius clearly shows through. His meticulously faithful adherence to Galeen’s directives is infused with his own brand of cinematic poetry, creating a striking visual statement that leaves lingering images in the viewer’s mind. His skill at using light and shadow is here used to great advantage, with his particular gift for capturing the almost tactile properties of both helping immeasurably to build the heightened, nightmare reality of the film. Nosferatu, after all, is pure Expressionist cinema- albeit tempered by the sensibilities of gothic romance- and as such is intended to simulate a sort of dream-state, in which the impulses of the unconscious psyche are manifested in outward form; Murnau’s ability to create this hallucinogenic, psychically resonant feel onscreen is largely responsible for its overwhelming success at this objective. Nor should his efforts with the mechanics of storytelling be ignored; he drives his film at precisely the right pace, neither too slowly or too quickly, but with a strong feeling of inexorability that feeds our cumulative sense of dread and pulls us deeper into the narrative. This effect was neither accidental nor accomplished after the fact through editing; the director filmed each scene with precision timing, even using a metronome to guide his actors, and controlled the rhythm and flow of the movie with such a musicality that its subtitle, “A Symphony of Horror,” is not at all hyperbolic.

The film’s other components should be noted, as well, for they all support Murnau’s artistry by building a cohesive visual unity. The director’s remarkable portrayal of light- such a tangible force it is itself almost a character in the drama- is made possible by the luminous work of cinematographer F.A. Wagner- who, amazingly, accomplished the entire shoot (even the extensive location footage) with only a single camera. Contributing immensely to the visual style, which not only makes heavy use of the theatrical, larger-than-life elements of Expressionism but also draws extensively on older, more traditional influences from Germany’s rich and varied artistic heritage, is the set-and-costume design of Albin Grau. His creations- with the help of Murnau and Wagner’s intricate lighting- evoke paintings by the great masters, but they also lend themselves to the edgy avant-garde milieu of the then-present-day; this melding of the familiar with the jarringly strange is yet another way in which Nosferatu derives its power. Grau was one of the film’s producers, and indeed had first conceived the idea of making the movie, inspired by an incident during his service in WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire; no doubt haunted by his imaginings of this farmer’s undead patriarch ravaging the countryside at night, he knew it was the sort of irrational dream material that was perfect for expression through film. It might be said that, more than Galeen or even Murnau, Nosferatu was his film; accordingly, his considerable design contributions, infused with the passion of a personal vision, should not be overlooked.

Though it was, of course, a silent film, music was nevertheless intended to play an important role in Nosferatu. Sadly, the original score composed to accompany its screening, written by Hans Edermann, was long thought lost. As a result, there have been numerous alternative scores created over the years, in styles ranging from lush orchestral romanticism to dissonant avant-garde minimalism. The print I watched recently (available on Netflix streaming video) features a score composed in 2000 by the Silent Movie Orchestra, consisting of a fairly contemporary-sounding ensemble utilizing such elements as electronic organ and heavy percussion; personally, I found it highly effective, but obviously it’s a matter of taste. Many feel that the score for a silent movie can only be appropriate if it is created in the style of- and with the instrumentation available in- the era in which the film was made; others have a more flexible preference, and obviously the majority of casual viewers will most likely find such a question immaterial (though I would venture to say that many of those who claim they cannot enjoy silent films are basing their opinion on the experience of seeing one with a generic, woefully inadequate musical accompaniment- the effect of music on this art form cannot be overstated). There are a number of prints available, with different scores to accommodate every taste, so if this aspect of the film is a concern, you would be well-advised to do a little research before choosing which version to watch. The now-reconstructed Edelmann score is featured on Kino’s restored print, which also offers probably the cleanest video quality available today, complete with the original, all-important chromatic tinting to differentiate day from night (in pure black-and-white, as most silent films were commonly shown for decades, time of day becomes a confusing issue); obviously, watching this edition is the best option, if possible; otherwise, there are numerous other versions available for free viewing online- after all, the movie is in the public domain, at least in the United States.

Whatever musical accompaniment you might favor, if you are a serious cinema aficionado, watch Nosferatu you should. Though many other horror films pre-date it, it is unquestionably the first unqualified masterpiece of the genre, from which all subsequent entries have sprung; not only have Galeen’s screenplay and Murnau’s direction spawned thousands of imitators throughout the past century, their film contains the first bona-fide horror icon (with the possible exception of Conrad Veidt’s somnambulistic murderer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the form of Count Orlok. As embodied by character actor Max Schreck, the count is a nightmarish figure indeed; a far cry from the darkly romantic charm of Bela Lugosi and other later interpretations of the Dracula character, he is utterly devoid of humanity, spectral, repellant and coldly detached. He famously grows uglier as the film progresses, with fangs and talons seeming to grow larger as he becomes more steeped in bloodshed and death. Like an anthropoid vermin, he moves his spindly frame with a grotesque grace and gazes with dull malevolence through his not-quite lifeless eyes; it’s easy to see why Schreck has been shrouded with mystery in the popular imagination, even being portrayed as a real vampire in the fictional 2000 film about the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire. For many years, cinematic legend surrounding the film has wrongly implied his surname was adopted for this role due to its translation into the English word “fright,” but Schreck was indeed his birth name, and he had enjoyed a long and prominent career in German theatre and film prior to being cast as Orlok. He deserves full recognition for his performance, a masterful creation in which he uses his physicality to bring the full essence of this loathsome character to the screen; to attribute his effectiveness solely to savvy casting, though Murnau reportedly picked him for his ugliness alone, is to discount the level of commitment this fine actor brought to the role, helping to make it one of the most definitive and influential screen depictions of a horror character ever filmed- an even more remarkable feat considering that he is actually on screen for a total of less than 10 minutes

The rest of the cast, though many of them have much more screen time, are not quite as unforgettable as Schreck- how could they be? This doesn’t mean their work is inferior, however; all of the players provide vivid portraits of their characters, delivering top-notch performances in the accepted style of the day. Gustav von Wangenheim, a noted theatrical writer/director and performer, and film’s true leading actor, is robust and florid as Hutter, a little over the top, perhaps, but more endearing by far than most of the wooden, stiff-upper lip types offered by later incarnations of the story’s parallel character, Jonathan Harker; the stately and beautiful Greta Schröder adds a touch more weight and dignity than expected to the role of Ellen, making her less the helpless victim than the tragic heroine; and as Knock, the psychically-enslaved real estate broker who serves as the film’s version of Renfield, Alexander Granach gives us a comically exaggerated- but still unsettling- personification of the archetypal greedy old man, here driven to the point of lunacy by the influence of his demonic master and presenting an obvious allegory, in his affiliation with the vampire, for the adulation of wealth and power represented by such figures- which gives Nosferatu a suggestion of sociopolitical commentary, in the sense that Knock becomes a scapegoat for the villagers, who blame and persecute him for the onset of the plague, though- despite his eager participation in the evil that besets them- he is, in reality, just another victim, a symptom of a larger malady that transcends political or economic concerns.

Nosferatu is one of those rare works from the early years of cinema that remains eminently watchable by the average viewer today; there is something about it, perhaps a sense of the dark despair hidden beneath even the brightest promise of happiness and prosperity, which allows it to strike a universal and timeless chord. There are so many haunting and indelible images here: the silhouetted horses fleeing from the marauding werewolf; the spectral coach speeding eerily in stop-motion as it bears Hutter to Orlok’s castle; the ghostly ship gliding inexorably through the night as it delivers the vampire across the waters; the angry mob destroying a scarecrow in its pursuit of Knock; and, of course, every moment of Orlok’s presence, from his first appearance as the sinister driver of the coach to his furtive and decidedly unromantic feeding upon his final victim. The stylized artistry of its presentation, far from making it inaccessible, seems to crystallize it and capture its essence in a form that is instantly familiar. It’s impossible to say, 90 years later, whether the imagery of Murnau’s movie has become integrated into our collective cultural consciousness or if it drew its inspiration from the dark imaginings that were already there; wither way, the effect is the same- Nosferatu is an experience that feels like it is coming from within us, not from without.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013442/

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 silent horror film featuring the legendary Lon Chaney in his most famous and recognizable role; it was a troubled production, but it ultimately proved so successful that it sparked a two-decade reign by its studio, Universal, as the premiere source of horror on the big screen. Critics at the time were lukewarm in their overall response to the film, though most were impressed by its production values and visual style, but they bestowed unanimous acclaim upon the element which was- and remains- its greatest appeal: the electrifying performance of Chaney as the title character, and the still-terrifying makeup he designed to transform himself into a ghoulish human monster.

Based on the 1909 novel by French author Gaston Leroux, the film’s plot differs somewhat in its details from the one familiar to fans of the now-better-known stage musical based on the same source, but the general premise remains the same. The prestigious Paris Opera is haunted by a mysterious shadowy figure known only as “The Phantom,” who is, in reality, a grotesquely disfigured musical genius that dwells in a secret lair deep within the catacombs beneath the opera house. Becoming enamored of Christine, the understudy to the Opera’s temperamental prima donna, he coaches her singing from behind the walls of her dressing room, and begins to send threatening letters to the Opera’s owners demanding they allow her to replace their star onstage; when they refuse to cooperate, he sabotages a performance, crashing the grand chandelier into the audience, and then kidnaps his protégé, prompting a desperate rescue attempt by her lover, Raoul, and sparking a manhunt to capture the fiend and put an end to his reign of terror, once and for all.

This highly melodramatic plot has since been fleshed out by a numerous variety of interpretations, from the gothic horror approach of Hammer Studios to the campy glam-fantasy of Brian DePalma’s seventies cult classic, The Phantom of the Paradise; but this original screen version remains, nearly 90 years later, the most iconic. Though many in today’s world have never seen the film, it would be hard to find someone unfamiliar with the horrific countenance of Lon Chaney’s Phantom; his pale, grinning, skull-like features are still among the most recognizable in horror cinema, turning up in various forms of media throughout our popular culture- even on a postage stamp- and continuing to inspire artists and actors today in their efforts to terrify. Without question, unless you are a serious film scholar- or a hardcore completionist- Chaney is the only real reason for a modern viewer to see The Phantom of the Opera; his makeup alone is worth the time investment, an impressive creation of face paint and wire which caused him excruciating pain during filming. His appearance- the most faithful depiction of the character to date, as described in the novel- is so gruesome that audiences of the day reportedly leaped from their seats in terror, and some weaker spirits even fainted from the shock- though doubtless some of these incidents were embellished by the studio for publicity purposes. However, Chaney’s magnificently deformed visage is only part of his draw here; the reason he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was that he had an uncanny gift for making such monstrous characters profoundly human, finding their hearts and rendering them with a rare poignancy that ultimately made them far more sympathetic than the stiffly artificial performers that surrounded them. His work is a revelation for anyone whose conception of silent film acting is limited to the stilted, melodramatic style represented by most of his contemporaries; his gift shines through the antiquated techniques of the form, reminding us of the effectiveness of pantomime as practiced by a true master. He communicates volumes of complex emotion with his body language and tells whole stories with the subtlest of gestures. He presents such a clear portrait of the pain and sadness lurking beneath the phantom’s furious persona that we cannot help but be on his side, for all the mayhem he causes; he conveys the depth of this man’s tragic experience- the isolation, the ridicule, the self-loathing- that has led him to hide himself away from the eyes of the world, and he makes us hope alongside him that the beauty of his musical gift will be enough to make Christine see past his physical ugliness and fall in love with the tender soul it conceals. We know that it won’t work, of course, which only serves to heighten our pity for this miserable outcast, dangerously mad though he may be.

Thanks to the success of Chaney’s previous blockbuster for Universal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the studio knew they had a major asset; consequently they spared no expense in the preparation of this follow-up, building lavish sets of enormous scale upon which to play out the drama. The production design (headed by the uncredited Ben Carré) centers on a complete vision of the Paris Opera House, giving us its opulent interiors, its magnificent façade and spectacular rooftop, and the elaborate sets and costumes for its onstage production of Faust (which, appropriately enough, figures prominently in the plot), including a backstage view full of looming and ominous props and set pieces. As for its dark underbelly, the Phantom’s sinister hideaway is a splendidly imaginative mix of gothic gloom and regal refinement, with dark labyrinthine passageways that include such improbable elements as a horse and an underground lake, leading to residential chambers resplendent with elegant décor and devilish mechanisms. Adding to the visual bedazzlement, the film utilizes a the technique of monochromatic tinting to create moods and to differentiate settings- a fairly common method of the era, and a far cry from the drab look most modern viewers associate with the silent cinema, due to the decades in which only faded black-and-white prints of these films were available. Thanks to modern restoration, we are treated not only to the recreation of this effect, which greatly enhances the visual experience of the film, but also to the full glory of the two-tone color process used for the film’s centerpiece, a grand masked ball sequence in which the Phantom appears amongst the revelers costumed as the Red Death.

Apart from the scenery, though, when Chaney is absent from the screen we are left, for the most part, with little to hold our interest. Though it’s important to remember that the overwrought posing practiced by most of the other actors was the accepted technique of the day, and that the performers here were well-known, popular, and respected stars at the time, modern audiences are still likely to feel alienated rather than endeared by the likes of such primitive thespians as Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, who portray Christine and Raoul, particularly when contrasted with the raw, timeless power of the film’s star. It’s not that they give bad performances- by the standard of the day, they were more than competent- but that they seem vaguely silly to us now, holdovers from the pulpy melodrama theatre which dominated American entertainment before the movies took over our collective imagination. Still, if one can get past the stylistic gap created by the intervening decades of changing fashion, it’s possible to see the talent on display here. There are some nice moments from Philbin, who was a lovely young woman, to be sure, exuding a sweetness and sincerity that seems particularly noticeable when she shares the screen with Chaney; and some of the supporting players provide memorable contributions, such as early Broadway star Snitz Edwards as a decidedly fey and cowardly stagehand who provides comic relief, and the uncredited Bernard Siegel as the Opera company’s resident “expert” on the Phantom. Kerry’s Raoul gets the worst deal, despite his then-much-heralded matinee-idol looks; his character is a stock, one-dimensional bore, and though he does give every effort to make some real feeling come through, his performance comes off as wooden and unimaginative, and the character seems almost dull-witted at times, making us root all the more for the Phantom in his efforts to win Christine away from him. Far more interesting is Arthur Edmund Carewe, who portrays Ledoux, a police detective secretly investigating the case of the mysterious opera ghost, who emerges just in time to become an ally in the quest to save Christine; despite the fact that the character was completely rewritten during the process of creating the intertitles- having originally been a Persian former associate of the Phantom now on his trail- and his scenes were filmed with a completely different backstory in mind, he still comes off better than Raoul, decisive, determined and brave. Barring her acceptance of the Phantom’s love, it would be better for Christine to fall for this hero, instead of the boring, moon-eyed stiff with whom she ends up.

The subject of Ledoux and his rewritten backstory brings up a major point in the discussion of The Phantom of the Opera- its tumultuous production history. Universal originally hired Rupert Julian, a prestigious director of stylish romances, to helm the project, but the shooting process was marred by his difficult relations with the cast and crew. Nevertheless, he succeeded in providing a final cut, more faithful to the novel’s plotline, including the mysterious Persian and keeping the original ending, in which the Phantom allows Christine and Raoul to leave together and remains in his underground hideout to die of a broken heart; unfortunately, the unfavorable reaction of preview audiences prompted the studio to embark on major rewriting and reshooting, without Julian (though his name was- and still is- retained as the credited director), which involved the creation of several subplots, new characters, more comic relief, and a different ending in which the Phantom is chased down by an angry mob and savagely murdered. Unfortunately, this version also bombed in previews, so the desperate studio scrapped most of it (though they retained the new, more “exciting” finale) and attempted to salvage the project by re-editing and rewriting the original cut (this is when the Persian became a Parisian police inspector). This time, it clicked, and the film was a huge hit- though, as mentioned, the critics found it somewhat mediocre, save for Chaney- and became a cash cow for Universal; in fact, it was so popular that upon the advent of sound a few years later, the studio shot new sequences (including more extensive scenes of the opera) and added a dubbed soundtrack featuring members of the original cast, except for Chaney (who was by then under contract with MGM). This version was also a success, but it has proven problematic for the film’s subsequent history; over the years, thanks to the negligence of the studio in preserving its original negatives, the only remaining prints of The Phantom of the Opera are a widely varying mish-mash of combinations from its different incarnations, making it virtually impossible to reconstruct its original form. As a result, the version now widely available contains material from both the final release cut of 1925 and the 1930 pseudo-talkie edition; sadly, there are sections which only survived in badly deteriorated form, making the contemporary version frustratingly patchy in its overall visual coherence. There are other inconsistencies, too, such as the use of a different actress as Carlotta (the opera’s prima donna) in the later version, a problem explained by changing the character’s former incarnation into “Carlotta’s Mother” for her retained scenes in the Opera managers’ office and billing the second actress (who appears only in the Faust performance scenes) as the actual “Carlotta.”

Despite all this, however, the current restored edition of The Phantom of the Opera preserves a valuable piece of cinematic history, and provides the interested viewer with a chance to experience the original screen version of this oft-filmed tale in a condition as close as possible to its initial, pristine form. Some of it is eye-opening, such as the important role of color in telling its story, a factor that was lost for many years; some of it, of course, comes up short of the expectation created by the film’s reputation, revealing the shortcomings observed by critics of the day, such as a somewhat shallow focus on spectacle and sensationalism at the expense of the deeper subtext inherent in its ultimately tragic tale, and the inclusion of certain bizarre, melodramatic elements designed merely to elicit audience response without consideration for their logic within the larger scope of the narrative. That said, it would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to see this venerable classic, a film which has generated so much influence and so many imitators over the years that it has entered the realm of legend. Though the film itself may not live up to its legendary status, the performance at its center certainly does; in fact, seeing it today, Lon Chaney’s Phantom seems perhaps even greater than it did in 1925, as fresh and immediate as if it were filmed yesterday, despite the elevated style. This is a testament to his powerful gift, with which he was able to reach across the decades, even 80 years after his death, to touch our world with his understanding of the human soul.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016220/

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1920 cinema cornerstone that established enduring conventions for the horror genre- indeed for cinema itself- and for the general public at least, has become one of the most recognizable representations of the German Expressionist movement.  A bizarre tale about a mysterious carnival magician whose hypnotized slave commits a series of murders at his bidding, this landmark film was first conceived by its writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, as a way to demonstrate the effectiveness of film as a medium for Expressionist art, and also to establish a definitive look for German cinema that would distinguish it from the growing influx of American movies to their country. The resulting work is one of the most distinctive visual experiences ever produced, featuring wildly distorted scenery (abstract, asymmetrical sets with sharp, jagged lines, obvious and elaborately theatrical backdrops with painted-on shadows) highly dramatic lighting, and a heightened acting style that seems exaggerated even compared with other silent films of the time; it was an experiment which only took place because the writers persuaded producer Erich Pommer that making the film in this style would save considerable amounts of money.  These creative pioneers- including director Robert Weine, who was brought on board when rising wunderkind Fritz Lang was unavailable- believed that their bold new approach would change the art form forever; however, though Dr. Caligari met with enthusiastic response from audiences and critics alike, and stirred much excitement in the world’s blossoming film community, it failed to lead the industry away from the more mundanely representational style in which it remains more-or-less grounded to this day.

This is not to say that the film had no bearing on the future of cinema.  Its visual conceits and thematic elements have provided immeasurable inspiration for filmmakers from F.W. Murnau to Tim Burton and beyond. Its macabre tone and gruesome content influenced not only the future of the horror genre but the entire film noir movement as well.  It set the precedent for using cinematic embellishment to suggest altered states of consciousness: virtually every film depicting dreams, delusions, or drug-induced hallucinations can trace its heritage back here.  Most important of all, perhaps, was its establishment of numerous structural conventions that have been in continuous use ever since: by constructing its grim story as the remembrance of a young man who is ultimately revealed to be a delusional patient in a mental hospital, Dr. Caligari became the first film to feature a framing device bookending its main narrative, to rely on an unreliable narrator, and to surprise its audience with a twist ending.  None of this is to say that later filmmakers could not have made these innovations on their own- but Caligari went there first.

All this film class trivia is well and good, but how does The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  hold up today for the casual viewer simply seeking entertainment?  Probably not well: the world is a much different place than it was in 1920, and we have been inundated with stories and images much more shocking and terrifying than those in this film- which, ironically, opened the door for all of them.  The conventions of fiction observed within it seem quaint and unsophisticated by our jaded modern standards, and the performances, with their jerky, unnatural physicality and their often-seemingly-inappropriate facial expressions (to say nothing of their histrionic, over-the-top style) seem unconvincing and inaccessible to us.  To top it off, its outrageously artificial visual style is so alien and disconcerting that it only serves to distance us further from the events onscreen, ensuring that we will never become viscerally engaged in the proceedings.  Of course, it’s true that these qualities were present even when Dr. Caligari was made- deliberately included as part of the Expressionist form intended and carefully crafted by its creators- but historical context has no bearing on our contemporary requirements for suspension of disbelief.

Before concluding, however, that Caligari has no value for any modern viewer who is not a film buff or an art enthusiast, it might be wise to look past the obvious sensibility gaps created by its distance from us in time.  It was never meant to be a purely escapist experience, even when it was conceived nearly a century ago; rather, it was- and is- a vivid and fully realized vehicle for Expressionist themes such as paranoia and the unreliability of perception, and an impressive presentation of the movement’s distinct visual style, comprised of crude, primal imagery that works on the subconscious to elicit a strong emotional response.  Its effectiveness is even keener in its restored form, which not only returns sharpness and luster to the once-faded print but also recreates the original hand-tinted colors, helping to clarify the story by differentiating day from night, and polishing up the intertitles with a font and style coordinated with the bizarre content of the story they tell.  A viewing of Dr. Caligari is hallucinogenic enough on a small screen, and though I’ve never had the opportunity to do so, I suspect that seeing it projected larger than life in a darkened theatre would be akin to experiencing a full dream state.

It’s also worth mentioning that although the stylized acting is hard to assess fairly from a standard modern perspective, Werner Kraus and Lil Dagover, as the mad magician and tragic damsel, respectively, have become iconic as personified archetypes of the collective consciousness; and as Cesare, the tormented somnambulist, Conrad Veidt is electrifying, using his remarkable physical skills and his expressive face to transcend both genre and style, and delivering perhaps the first truly great film performance- one which continues to inspire and influence actors to this day.

So although The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may not offer the kinds of thrills and chills sought by the average viewer looking for a lively horror film, it certainly offers many other rewards.  There are good reasons why it has been celebrated, emulated, re-invented, re-adapted, saluted and parodied so many times over the decades; it is part of our cultural makeup, and if that is enough to get you to watch it, you may find yourself enjoying its twisted pleasures in ways you never expected.

 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0010323/