Friday, 11 December 2009

Ah! German Expressionist Zombies!

It's a strange thing, that I don't really think of silent films as 'real' films. I don't consider that they have genres of their own, in the same way modern cinema does- apart from 'comedy' and 'melodrama', that is. Even 'horror'; to me they're all lumped into the general umbrella term of 'silent movies'. Which is a pity, really. It's quite fascinating to watch the products of a medium in its infancy, and how deeply these films have influenced alot of what we watch today.

It's impossible to talk about the lasting effects of the silent movie era without mentioning German Expressionism. Chaplin, Keaton et al might have had a hand in technological development, but in terms of set design, ze Germans have them beaten hands down.

I've already sat through Fritz Lang's Metropolis (and had secretly hoped never to have to watch it again), and its resonances throughout modern cinema are undeniable- Superman, Blade Runner, Star Wars and -my own personal favourite- Tim Burton's Batman all riff heavily from Metropolis. Today, though, we were introduced to another classic from the movement- 1919's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

This film is dreamy, macabre, quirky, sinister, baffling and undeniably loony; quite a feat considering it's less than a decade shy of being 100 years old. The set pieces are quite incredible. As soon as we were transported into the story via flashback, I found it instantly recognisable- and I'd never seen it before. It looks like the great-grandfather of The Nightmare Before Christmas; while the somnambulist character Cesare is a dead ringer for Edward Scissorhands. The surreal, slanting, theatrical set pieces wouldn't look out of place in The Mighty Boosh. In short, this film has influenced a fair chunk of my DVD collection, so it's really kinda shocking that I'm only watching it for the first time now.
At first, I couldn't get past the set design to get totally into the story- it's a densely packed set, like some kind of bizarre gothic pantomime captured on film. Even the intertitles are in jagged, erratic text. Watching the film to the end reveals, after all, that the words are those of a madman- hence the crazy font. At the start thought, it takes a while to adjust. Once I got properly into the film, I realised how large a part the psychotic dreamscapes play in telling the story.
Even the story is pretty convoluted- not your typical, straightforward silent film and a million miles away from the Little Tramp.
The film opens with a young man talking to an elderly gent. A young woman comes floating past unaware of them, she looks ghostlike, as if she's in a trance. The young man, Francis, explains that she's his fiancee. And terrible things have caused her current condition to befall her.

His story begins with a travelling fair in his home town; the main event being Dr Caligari and his somnambulist 'puppet' Cesare. Caligari brags that Cesare can predict the future, and when he awakens he predicts the death of Francis' friend Alan, to happen the next day. When the grim prediction comes true, the townspeople are out for blood. Cesare kidnaps Jane and flees, later found dead from exhaustion. Francis tracks Caligari down to a mental asylum- of which he is the Director...or is he? Are he and Cesare really travelling through towns and even time? Or is it Francis himself who is the madman?

The final reel's sucker punch twist is ingenious, one which would put many modern counterparts to shame. Definitely not a film I'd watch for some light entertainment, but it truly exemplifies film as an art form. I'm a huuuuge horror film fan, and since watching Caligari I've realised how immeasurable its influences actually are throughout the genre. I'd even considered whether it could be one of the first 'zombie' films- a character trapped in a half-life limbo? Who stirs from his seemingly eternal sleep only to wreak havoc and bring death and unrest upon humankind? Hmmm...!

It's rare to see a film of its era which has such pyschological depth. Rather than pander to the audience with a happy ending, it forces them to question what they've just seen. The grotesque characters, darkly twisted sets and chilling, involving story all add up to what it rightly hailed as an all time classic- and, as I have now learned, not just a classic 'silent' film.

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