THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (DOCTOR CALIGARI AND HIS CABINET)
Starring Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss
A strange, new type of picture has been shown recently in New York City. Originally purchased by the Goldwyn Company merely to be studied as a model for possible new effects, it finally has been tried out on the public. Having seen it previous to its first public showing in America, I am somewhat baffled by it. I know what I personally think of it, but what the motion-picture public will think of it is another matter. If I come right out and say that it is one of the most important and significant productions of the year, some Picture Play reader is likely to misunderstand me and ask the editor to have me committed to an insane asylum.
'Doctor Caligari and his Cabinet," as the picture is called, is a German production. It is an excellent example of the workings of a morbid, scientific Teutonic mind. And it is also an example of the imaginative stagecraft that has made the German theaters the finest in the world. No American director would have had the cold nerve to produce a futuristic picture with settings inspired by the drawings of Picasso and Matisse. In this country, futuristic art is a joke and an old joke at that.
But to the reviewer, a picture with a story that might have been conceived by Edgar Allan Poe, and with settings that are both weird and effective, is a dazzling and beautiful novelty. To the average motion picture patron who takes his wife and children for a quiet evening at the movies, all this scenery cut on the bias is likely to be as pleasant as a trip through a lunacy ward. And so "Doctor Caligari" may not reach the theaters throughout the country. That, I presume, will depend largely on its reception at the Capitol Theater, in New York.
Although you may never see "Doctor Caligari," you ought to know about it because you will feel its influence in other pictures that are to come. It contains the germ of a great production idea, and while American directors have not had the courage to blaze new trails away form convention, they probably will not be slow to follow a good road once it has been pointed out to them. "Doctor Caligari" may seem queer and ridiculous to those who have been trained to enjoy the routine movie, but it is only by experimenting with the queer, the ridiculous, and the out of the ordinary, that motion pictures can hope to escape from machinelike precision and utter banality.
I have told you that the story suggests Poe. Its hero is a
lunatic, and the narrative of the picture is his autobiography.
He tells you the story of a Doctor Caligari, a magician who goes
about to country fairs exhibiting a somnambulist. At the instigation
of Doctor Caligari, the corpselike sleep walker suggests and commits
all kinds of crimes. Investigation of the strange tale proves
that the hero is an inmate of an asylum, and the man he has imagined
as the sinister Caligari is really a doctor of abnormal psychology.
At the end of the picture, you learn that the terrible stories
of crime, the nightmare backgrounds, and the whole tale of horror
are the ravings of a lunatic. In other words, for six reels the
picture gives you a fairly accurate and psychologically correct
idea of the workings of an insane man's mind. It is not a pretty
idea, but you must admit that it is something absolutely new.
The significance of the production to American directors is the fact that it hints at a new way of telling stories on the screen. Most pictures are presented merely in terms of action. That is to say, the director tells his story in the way that the average hack fiction writer tells his story. American directors, especially, have developed a habit of dealing in externals. In adapting novels and plays to the screen, they have carefully followed the action and have told us merely what the characters did and how they looked. But they did not indicate what these characters thought, what they felt, or how their minds worked.
"Doctor Caligari" unfolds its story as a series of
impressions. It tells, not the story of a man, but the story of
a man's mind. You see the events of the plot, not as they happened,
but as the lunatic imagined they occurred. D.W. Griffith succeeded
in getting some impressionistic effects in "Broken Blossoms"
and in "Way Down East." In "Broken Blossoms"
you saw Battling Burrows not as he looked in real life, but as
he appeared to his terror-stricken daughter. In "Way Down
East" you see, in flashes, not Anna Moore, but a picture
of idealized innocence.
Doctor Caligari" with its weird and terrible story, is a consistent development of an idea that has been only half realized by American directors. It is an idea that is worth encouraging because it brings to the screen a third dimension that it has hitherto lacked. It shows us that motion pictures can be made of mental as well as physical action.
If you take the children to see "Doctor Caligari" just because I have said it is an interesting picture, don't blame me if they have nightmares.
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