June Butler falls under a spell of images and sounds at a special centenary screening of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari that took place earlier this year in Dublin’s St Ann’s Church with a new score performed live by Adrian Crowley, Seán Mac Erlaine, Matthew Nolan and Barry Adamson, with live processing by Neil O’Connor.
On a chilly evening in February 2020, St Ann’s Church Dublin, witnessed the screening of the internationally renowned landmark film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, exactly one hundred years ago to the day (26th February 1920) since it was first shown to eager audiences. In the aftermath of World War I, foreign film industries had started to ease restrictions on the distribution of German films, paving the way for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be exported. There are varying accounts as to the actual financial success of the venture but contemporary critics and historical experts of the genre, agree that for its time, it was hugely creative, artistically revolutionary, and styled as one of the first true ‘horror’ films of the era.
Considered to be an archetypal example of German Expressionist Cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It tells the story of a diabolical hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who visits fairgrounds with a somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), adept at predicting the future. True to the horror element of Wiene’s brainchild, the somnambulist never foretells happy events. In its final catastrophic moments, the entire story is revealed as the ravings of a madman and Dr. Caligari himself, the director of a mental institute in which the narrator has been incarcerated. It is implied that the previous wicked events existed only as deluded fantasy.
The plot of the film was roughly based on personal experiences from the lives of both Janowitz and Mayer. The duo were pacifists and wrote the script after a number of negative experiences with military authority during World War I. Their fears regarding misguided dicta were well-founded when they were ultimately forced to re-write the ending by German bureaucrats because it was felt that the film was unacceptably critical of German authority. The paradox of being punished for speaking out by the same body that Janowitz and Mayer had originally criticised, was not lost on free thinkers.
The sets were designed to arouse discomfort among viewers. Nothing was as it should be – streets held no perspective. Roads twisted into the distance but did not seem to go anywhere. Trees became distorted and appeared dead. Jagged lines were drawn into bold and angled shapes. Chairs existed as too big or too small. Windows tilted in a skewered fashion and doors were cut into bizarre outlines. In all, visual elements exuded a sense of tension impossible to ignore. The balletic movements of the characters, certainly those of Jane (Lil Dagover), Cesare, Dr. Caligari, and Francis (Friedrich Feger) were in keeping with Wiene’s directives who felt that stylised steps would be more appropriate to an Expressionistic format and would contribute towards destabilising the narrative.
In Greek mythology, there is a phenomenon called the Cassandra syndrome or alternately the Cassandra metaphor/curse/complex. It is the condition of being able to accurately predict the future or have good reason to give valid warnings, and where those concerns are never taken into account or believed by others. Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, the last King of Troy. Entranced by her beauty, Apollo bestowed upon her the gift of prophecy but when Cassandra rejected Apollo’s advances, he changed the gift to a curse, decreeing that she would be able to foresee the future but no one would have confidence in her predictions. The complex has been applied to a variety of subjects including cinema and this reviewer believes that it could be conceivably applied to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. All of the elements are there to support the theory – the claims of the protagonist, both of the existence of the evil somnambulist and his puppet master Dr. Caligari, and later when he realises that Dr. Caligari is the director of an asylum of which he is an inmate – all statements which were denied and later found to be true. In addition, both Janowitz and Mayer had witnessed examples of tyranny around military authority during World War I. It could be therefore stated that the parties predicted an abuse of power and wrote the script with the aim of highlighting the issue. When they were forced to change the ending because it was a little too close to the truth, the concept of the Cassandra metaphor is upheld. They told their story but it was not trusted or accepted and most importantly, they were disbelieved – ultimately however, the political comment was borne out as accurate, fulfilling the complex and causing the prediction to come into effect.
The centenary screening was held in St. Ann’s church on Dawson Street, Dublin and was hosted by Dublin Business School. Introduced by the academic Dr. Piotr Sadowski, scholar and author of The Semiotics of Light and Shadows: Modern Visual Arts and Weimar Cinema (2018), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed by an entranced audience. In addition to the visual narrative, accompanying music was and is of equal importance. An original score was written for this occasion and performed live by Matthew Nolan (Electric Guitar and Loops), Adrian Crowley (Viola, Clarinet, Music Box, and Loops), Seán MacErlaine (Electric Piano (Wurlitzer), Tuned Percussion, Car Horn, Reeds and Electronics), and Barry Adamson (Bass Guitar, Floor Tom, Electronics), with live electronic processing by Neil O’ Connor. The experience was almost beyond description – transcendent, moving, mesmerising – a symbiosis of masterful perfection. Musically, it matched step by step each pivotal moment in the tale. Tension elevated to an apprehensive crescendo and was skilfully halted as the narrative dictated. Moments of quirkiness ensued. At times the sound approached a dreamlike state as notes soared and crashed. Discord reigned – yet remained transfixed and petrified in a strangely ethereal other-world of cadence. A plummeting tumbling ode to brutish and beautiful whimsy. In the final moments of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the audience was held rapt and awestruck.
St. Ann’s church was an exceptionally well chosen venue for this masterpiece – Matthew Nolan and Co. and the immensely knowledgeable Dr. Sadowski may rest secure in the knowledge that they did Robert Wiene proud exactly one hundred years after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was first released. An accomplished production such as this belongs on a world stage.