Last night a full house gathered around the basement stage of the Soho Theatre, brimming with anticipation. A preview screening of the canonical horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) was soon to commence and the film would be accompanied by Martyn Jacques – an Olivier award winner and founding member of the punk-cabaret band The Tiger Lillies. Jacques entered stage left with his face painted black and white – reflecting the sharp contrasts of light and darkness used in the film and the make-up used on one of the key characters: Cesare the somnambulist (played by Conrad Veidt). Aided only by an accordian and a piano, Jacques’ soulful voice then began to convey the deeper and darker binaries of this complicated film.
The story centres around Mr Francis (Friedrich Fehér), a young man recalling a series of frightful incidents that have recently befallen he and his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover). When he and his friend Mr Alan (Hans Heinrich v. Twardowski) visit a fairground attraction, the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) bids Cesare to tell Alan’s fortune. The calamitous verdict that he will be dead by dawn, however, understandably leaves the pair reeling. Cesare’s ruinous prophesy comes to pass – mainly because Dr Caligari inflicts his murderous will upon Cesare, forcing him to commit acts he is not conscious of, and Dr Caligari seemingly has no intention of stopping at Mr Alan.
The film itself is striking. Clearly an important film in terms of early expressionism, director Robert Wiene carefully constructs images of great visual contrast reflecting the many dualistic themes running through the piece. The use of shadows during Alan’s unsettling strangling is similar to the shadow effects used later by Murnau in his seminal vampire picture: Nosferatu (1922). Furthermore, when we are first introduced to Cesare the camera lingers on his pallid face, his eyes smeared, with dramatic flair, in black make-up. A flicker of life stirs beneath his eye lids and slowly, ever so slowly, the lids raise to reveal intense eyes that peal a silent scream of torment. This use of slow-burning reveals is an oft-seen convention in early horrors influenced by the expressionist movement. Short on flashy visual effects, the directors of the era built tension by simply giving their shots time and juxtaposing light and dark, and to this day it works a treat.
As for Jacques arrangement, it is in places haunting and in others downright harrowing. The stilted, jaunty beat played throughout the early fairground scenes particularly betray some hidden unease, perfectly relaying the dark undertow of Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s tale. As somebody who is used to hearing only musical accompaniment at silent screenings, I did at times find the addition of words a little distracting. There is a part of me that wonders whether or not silent films need so many words, whether or not image and intertitles are enough? This show is still, however, a truly fascinating and unhinging experiment in silent film performance and well worth a look for film fans on the hunt for an alternative silent screen experience.
Helen has awarded Martin Jacques: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari four Torches of Truth.