Inside the Cabinet of famous German Expressionist film

Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” (1920)
Seeing this German Expressionist silent film classic at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival showing in Sydney recently was an opportunity too good to pass up. I did expect that this film would be an “arty” film in the sense of having stylised acting by actors in distinctive make-up that emphasises their roles and moods and the general tenor of the movie’s theme, whatever that would be. I already knew the movie was famous for its sets and use of lighting which were unusual for its time. What I wasn’t prepared for was the clever plot which addresses mental illness and explores fear and horror through hallucinations, and how the technical aspects of the movie were not just ends in themselves as they sometimes can be in self-consciously experimental art films but were an integral part of the movie’s subject and intended to communicate something to the audience about the nature of the plot as it unfolded.
Two men – one of them a young man called Francis – are sitting in a garden: Francis begins to tell his story of the horrific murder of his friend Alan and of the attempted kidnapping of his fiancee Jane. Francis traces the murder and the foiled kidnap to a sinister elderly man, Dr Caligari, who has come into town to exhibit his remarkable psychic somnambulist called Cesare at the town fair. Francis does some further investigating and discovers that Dr Caligari poses as director of a mental hospital with a research sideline on how to mentally control sleepwalkers like Cesare and force them to commit abhorrent acts. Dr Caligari finds his cover blown so he attempts to escape justice … We later return to the garden scene where the action carries on from there into the twist ending which throws all the foregoing action into a completely different light.
The sets, props and backgrounds with their sharp angles, geometric and irregular shapes, and a bold painting style that might bring to mind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “The Vampire” paintings, effectively externalise the fears, emotions and pain of a mentally ill person who has completely retreated from the real world for reasons unknown. The main actors, in particular Werner Krauss who plays Dr Caligari, wear make-up that emphasise their natures (well-meaning and earnest for Francis, pure-hearted and innocent for Jane, evil for Dr Caligari) and they act in a style that might be described as exaggerated pantomime to convey thoughts, feelings and intentions. I had never thought that silent films could be demanding to watch: the action is constant and the pace brisk, and the whole time my gaze must flit from the actors’ faces to their movements, to the backdrop and props, and back again. Minor actors usually move in a natural style and the contrast between the way they move and the main actors’ movements must be a deliberate ploy emphasising the whole suffocating world in which Francis, Jane and the villains move. There is such a lot of visual activity and richness going on all at once!
I can’t help but think that once films acquired sound, the world of cinema lost a lot of its early creativity and the opportunities for actors to showcase their dramatic skill and range of expression shrank very … well, dramatically. On occasions though, we still have movies being made where the action is demonstrated completely by action complemented by atmosphere, appropriate visual backgrounds and sets, and perhaps music, and dialogue is completely absent or at an absolute minimum, and such moments may be the most remarkable part of the film.
“The Cabinet …” is early proof that a genre film can be both commercial entertainment and experimental high art. I understand it is considered an important film in the development of German Expressionist films in the 1920s and it has had some influence on film noir and horror. Operas and radio plays based on the movie have been performed. The film has also been an influence on Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” on which Martin Scorsese’s 2009 film of the same name is based. In particular the characters of Dr Caligari and Cesare respectively establish the stock figures of the mad scientist villain intent on controlling human nature and the dehumanised “robot” who must obey the master’s commands and carry out the most vile acts, in a context that provided (in 1920) a psychological buffer between the movie’s implications and its original audiences. It’s not a little ironic therefore that 20 years after the movie’s release, people in Germany found themselves in a similar somnambulist role to their government; and of the actors involved in the movie, Krauss supported Adolf Hitler’s government and was made an Actor of the State by Joseph Goebbels while Conrad Veidt who played the somnambulist left Germany in 1933 in protest at the Nazi government and went to live in the UK and later the US, in which countries he re-established his acting career.

The Hunger: glossy and glamorous but in need of a remake anyway

Tony Scott, “The Hunger” (1983)

One of a number of 1980s-made movies in the remake production line, this glossy flick was Tony Scott’s directorial debut about a love triangle of two vampires searching for immortality and a mortal human who originally was part of the search. Miriam and John (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) are two lovers who have been together for a couple of centuries now, subsisting on human blood and presumably moving long distances from time to time to avoid suspicion and detection, ending up in New York City in the late twentieth century; but John finds old age rapidly encroaching on him and they both hear of medical specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who has done research with monkeys on sleep disorders and ageing, so they seek her advice and help. Unfortunately the doctor fails to respond at first and is too late to prevent John’s rapid deterioration – an early scene in the consultation room perhaps should be required viewing for those doctors and other professionals who keep clients waiting – and she ends up falling under Miriam’s seductive spell and being primed to replace John as lover. John himself ends up trapped in a coffin shoved into an attic room along with the coffins of Miriam’s previous lovers, all of them victims of her lie that she can give them eternal life.

When first released, the movie garnered negative reviews and it’s easy to see why: the very sketchy plot moves very glacially for most of the film’s running time and only towards the end does the pace pick up and the tone changes from subdued to melodramatic. Much of the movie is dominated by long camera shots dwelling on background details, ostensibly for the sake of mood and atmosphere and to establish Miriam and John as refined sophisticates who inherit and pass on the best of European high culture to the people they live among in New York City. Before he became a film director, Scott’s background was in advertising – he ran an agency together with older brother Ridley who also became a film director, only more famous – and the influence certainly shows in the glamorous, glossy style of the movie which these days looks rather twee and not a little ridiculous. I would rather have seen a movie that spent less time lovingly dwelling on transparent white curtains swaying near windows and more on the history of Miriam and John, and how it is that while Miriam can remain youthful and vital indefinitely, her lovers decline after two centuries and end up trapped in shrivelled bodies in coffins, hidden out of sight. More time should have been spent on some character development, just enough to make Miriam’s seduction of Sarah credible and for the audience to feel some sympathy for the three main characters, however repellent their behaviour. The actors have little to do and I have the sneaking suspicion that Deneuve and Bowie were hired more for their ethereal beauty than for any acting ability. Bowie especially just walks on and off but his problem may be due to the way the original eponymous novel by Whitley Strieber, who incidentally wrote the screenplay for the remake commissioned by Warner Bros, ended up translated to the screen; I understand much of it fell by the wayside and the bits that did involved John’s character seeking vengeance on Miriam. The film compensates for the loss by tacking on a very flimsy and undeveloped sub-plot about a police search for a missing teenage girl but this has the nature of being an afterthought and just doesn’t tie into the main plot or provide any tension or direction to the movie at all.

The best part of the film is in its opening scenes where Miriam and John prey for victims in a Goth-themed nightclub to the tune of 1980s UK band Bauhaus’s song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”: a hard edge to the movie is established with sharp lighting and the actors in shiny black leather and dark glasses glide through the crowds, pick their victims and take them home for dinner. It’s all action with just two or three words spoken and just a few quick but effective camera shots are needed for the audience to see how the vampires dispatch their victims. In a movie where the “v” word is never mentioned, Miriam and John enjoy no physical advantages over ordinary mortals: they need knives to kill, they must dispose of the bodies themselves, they have to hide evidence that points to them as killers. If the whole movie had been more like its opening scenes, which alone made the movie a cult must-see among young people, in style and pace, it would have been a great movie as it’s not without its assets: yes, it’s very beautiful to watch, very melancholy (too much so, perhaps) and richly layered with details redolent of culture and past times that only immortal creatures can appreciate. Miriam and Sarah’s love-making scene is erotic in a tasteful way and the violence can be quick and shocking, almost demonic.

The appealing aspect of “The Hunger”, which Scott could have made more of, is the notion of two individuals pursuing indefinite life who have only each other and who by their nature must stay their distance from human society yet are compelled to interact with it and negotiate and test its changing boundaries and extremes through time. They acquire art and culture and learn to act as refined sophisticates and social leaders according to the host society’s conventions; they may become world-weary and sad at the passage of time (and the growing coarseness of society around them) but their essential nature remains savage and ravenous, and they will always be dangerous wherever they are.