Following up the official Halloween presentation of Rosemary’s Baby, Kevin came back at us one week later (putting us back on schedule) with what some consider to be the very first horror film ever – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a silent 1920 German film directed by Robert Wiene.
But since the film was quite short, we had time to show a decent-length short, and as Kevin hadn’t selected any, I chose one with as much connection to somnambulists in cabinets as I could muster – the ESPN 30 For 30 short entitled “An Immortal Man”. I don’t think ESPN videos will embed, so here’s the link. Basically it covers baseball great Ted Williams and the strange decision to have his body cryogenically frozen at his death. THere are a number of upright freezer vats that you see in the short, and I’m pretty sure Teddy Ballgame is somnambulating in one of them. But on to our feature:
We open with our hero Francis, sitting on a bench with an older man in a bland courtyard. As a woman catatonically walks by, Francis informs the other that she is his fianceé, and begins to tell his fateful story…
Francis and his friend Alan lived in the bizarrely twisted and fractured city of Holstenwall, where they both vied for the affections of a young woman named Jane.
One day an eccentric old man named Dr. Caligari shows up wishing to present his traveling show featuring Cesaré the somnambulist at the town fair. The town clerk gives him a bit of a hard time, but does end up giving him a permit. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, they say, and despite the granted permit, somebody stabs the clerk to death that night.
The next day Alan and Francis go to the show, and Alan asks exactly the one question you don’t ask of an allegedly psychic alleged somnambulist. The answer – “until dawn”. And, sure enough, somebody who certainly seems to resemble Cesaré stabs Alan to death in the middle of the night.
Francis immediately suspects Caligari or Cesaré. The police question Caligari but would seem to have a tough time pinning two murders on a man who has been asleep for the last 25 years. Besides, shortly thereafter an unconnected individual is arrested in the attempt of murdering an old woman. He claims to be simply a copycat murderer – fortunately the police had held back the information that the killer was littering the crime scene with tabs of Unisom, so it was pretty clear that he was, indeed, a copycat.
The next victim is intended to be Jane, but instead of killing her Cesaré abducts her. At the same time, Francis, who has been monitoring Cesaré’s cabinet believes it could not have been him – until the cabinet turns out to be occupied by a life-size doll. The Police eventually track him down, with Cesaré falling down dead (it’s a rough job to tote a girl at top speed for 26.2 miles) but Caligari escaping in the confusion.
Francis then somehow follows Caligari to a mental hospital, where it turns out he is the director. Francis discovers that Caligari has become obsessed with an 11th century doctor of the same name who had a famously murderous somnambulist named Cesaré (you might think this was a remarkable coincidence, but perhaps there’s some mimicry going on here…) and Dr. Caligari is captured and straitjacketed by his assistants.
And you would think that would be that, but suddenly it turns out that Jane is in the mental hospital (believing that she is a queen) and the “dead” Cesaré is also in the mental hospital and the whole thing comes crashing down as a delusion of Francis, yet another patient in the insane asylum, with the director of the institution (who indeed looks just like a less-evil Caligari) now believing he knows enough about the patient’s affliction to save him. The End.
I’m about as torn as I can be about this film. First off, the print I saw was downright terrible, which made presumably simple things like identifying which character is which a bit difficult at times. And being a silent film – with pretty limited title cards – it’s tough to follow. There were points – many of them, in fact – in the film where I decided that the actions being described didn’t make any sense. At one point, Jane goes to seek out her missing father at Caligari’s tent. But we didn’t know her father was missing, or why she would go there, or why, after she goes there, Caligari decides that she must be the next victim. I chalked a lot of this up to, gee, it’s 1920 and they haven’t really gotten the whole “movie” thing down yet. I mean, let’s be honest. The only feature film I can even name that is older than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is Birth of a Nation, and that’s famous for other reasons.
But then again, maybe the age of the film wasn’t really the problem because the fractured nature of the narrative fits pretty well with the story being a flashback being told by a mental patient. Compare the fantastical city of Holstenwall with the drab courtyard where the flashback is begun. Perhaps all the signs are there, I just didn’t know what to really look for because I had no prior experience with a film of this vintage. When you watch, for example, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, you know exactly which scenes are supposed to be drug trips because you’ve seen that kind of thing in movies before. But imagine being a citizen of the future, accustomed as you are to your 3-D sensory-immersive holocinematic expos and being asked to watch the very first example you’ve ever come across of a 100-year-old film in Fear and Loathing. It’s going to seem really primitive, and it’s going to seem really confusing, and it’s going to be hard to realize that the majority of it was deliberately confusing and not necessarily just a consequence of the primitivity of the medium. So I really think that’s what was happening here, and I have to bump the movie up just because of that. Reflecting back on it, it’s a better film that I thought it was watching it, so like, the opposite of Interstellar.