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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Inmates Run the Asylum
by Donald Levit

Much critical-historical ink has debated The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari/Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari.  Is it Surrealist, or Expressionist, the latter more a stage and canvas manifestation -- Strindberg, Pirandello, O’Neill, Capek; Kirchner and Munch -- than cinematic.  Was Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’ script based on an actual Hamburg carnival murder and/or is it a metaphor for Weimar Republic despair, “lawlessness and depravity”?  Is it elitist or true earliest horror -- a New York première audience booed and demanded refunds.  Is the opening and closing garden frame a cop-out -- former stage actor and director Robert Wiene added it on the advice of the producer’s first choice, Fritz Lang, to reflect “normality.”  Why has this classic not been followed up on -- aside from a limp 1962 Robert Bloch-scripted remake, a worse one in 2005, and the fine Bloch stories-based Asylum in 1972.  Is the thrust mind-control, a Faustian bargain, social commentary, or the illusions of the deranged?  And what about the forty-percent discrepancy in running time from one print to another?

To live piano accompaniment by Ben Model, the deteriorated seventy-one minute version preserved by and screened at the Museum of Modern Art is one of more than twenty-five classics over five months in “Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters,” a treasure in itself in support of the Museum’s multimedia exhibition of Burton’s life and work, film (a complete retrospective) and otherwise.

Today’s jump-out special effects provide visceral scares beyond those of this 1920 silent but rarely equal Herman Warm’s bizarre sets, painted on studio paper in anti-three dimensional spatial logic, at oblique angles or disorienting curves.  This is the “inner” world of the tale-within-a-tale nightmare that Francis (Friedrich Feher) relates, seated inside a walled garden itself enclosing a mental institution whose patients include his catatonic fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover).

Atelier-artsy types, Francis and Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) had attended the traveling fair newly arrived in Holstenwall town.  At a sideshow tent Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) hawks tickets to see Cesare the Somnambulist (Conrad Veidt), who “knows all secrets and looks into your future.”  Commanded to awaken, the pretty sleeper intones that Alan’s “time is short, you die at dawn,” and, sure enough, the terrified young man is murdered in his bed.

Francis’ friendly rival for the hand of Dr. Olsen’s (Rudolf Lettinger) daughter Jane, he is not the first or the last, even after the arrest of a surly confessed killer (Ludwig Rex).  In familiar genre pattern, the monster-murderer will come for the heroine, too, in her filmy white bedroom, where either her innocent beauty or his innate conscience stays his dagger-hand.  Androgynously slender in baggy black, Cesare proves a powder puff, anyway, quickly tired when pursued and giving up his slight burden and seemingly his own ghost.

Fooled once by a dummy, Francis nevertheless finds Caligari as the head doctor of the local asylum but gets him straitjacketed when books reveal notations about a medieval Italian Caligari who manipulated others to do what they would ordinarily not.  Still theoretically narrated by Francis, this is but a story told by an idiot—or is it? for concluding frames return to a universe of “reality” and reversed rôles.

Heavy stage mannerisms and makeup underscore the disorienting non-naturalistic backdrops, giving everything a skewed fun-fair-room effect.  Eye-shadowed and powdered pale, faces are lit from below in isolated iris-circles, a “pattern of pictures” to serve instead of the era’s common wipe transitions (and incidentally conform with governmental restrictions on electricity).

Even if taken as social or Freudian statement, Caligari’s real star attraction is in the visuals.  Today’s virtual-realism CGIs often come out soulless.  Ninety years ago, in contrast, Caligari flaunted its very artificiality and thus projected yet another reality, a parallel, artistically superior one at that. 

(Released by Goldwyn Distributing Company; not rated by MPAA.)

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