Sunday, September 19, 2010

Remake of Caligari (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A friend of mine shared this with me and I had to write a review, share it with folks who might appreciate it as I do.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as a milestone of German expressionistic cinema, one that seriously influenced nearly all that came after it.  One can see in it a lens through which a traumatized society began to see the world.  Recall this was immediately following the First World War, a social upheaval whose reverberations included the Nazis, Lord of the Rings, Prohibition, the rise of new and startling artforms as well as the end to most of the ancient monarchies of Europe.  We still feel it today.

In 2005 a sound remake not only recreated the story but by filming on green screen managed to use the actual background of the original, placing new actors against the same eerie nightmare landscape.  Ah the wonders of the personal computer!

A old man tells a spooky story to a young one, Francis (Judson Pearce Morgan) who scoffs at belief in devils or ghosts.  Then, a beautiful young woman passes (Lauren Birkell) without answering their salutation.  Francis, grief-stricken, identifies her as his fiancee.  He says her sanity was destroyed in a terrible series of events...

From there the flashback begins, telling of Francis and his best friend Allan (Neil Hopkins) who both love Jane (the aforementioned beautiful young woman).  Allan drags Francis off to see the local Carnival, where on a whim they go see the exhibit of one Dr. Caligari (Daamen J. Krall) -- a somnambulist named Caesare (Doug Jones of Hellboy fame) who can be made to wake then foresee the future.  Allan asks how long he has to live.  The answer "Until dawn tomorrow!"  Sure enough, within twelve hours he has been stabbed to death in his sleep.  Francis, suspicious of Caligari and perhaps guilt-ridden over loving the same woman as his murdered best friend (and neglecting him in the wake of Allan's mental illness), spurs city officials to investigate.  But in doing so, he becomes the target of Caligari's revenge--aimed squarely at the lovely Jane!  Caesare, under his master's hypnotic commands, goes to kill her.  But then, entranced by her beauty, he stays his hand.  Seeking to kidnap her instead, Caesare is chased down.  Jane, alas, is so traumatized she becomes almost catatonic.  Francis is the one who tracks down Caligari to his lair--an insane asylum where the man turns out to be the director!

As the story concludes, we return to the present.  Francis bemoans his Jane's continued state-of-mind while continuing to insist there are no ghosts, no demons, only the physical world.  Then comes the twist.  We learn all three of them--Francis, the old man, and Jane--are inmates at the very asylum of the flashback.  Caesare is another inmate.  More, the man identified as "Caligari" is indeed the asylum's director.  As Francis attacks him and is put into a straight jacket, the Doctor believes he now understands and may be able to cure him.

Such a simple plot description doesn't capture what makes both films--original and remake--so powerful.  A lot depends upon the strange look of the film and its world.  There's hardly a vertical or horizontal line anywhere.  Instead curves and angles abound.  Like film noir decades later, shadows frame so many shots  and likewise the acting has a stylized quality.  Almost stage-theatrical.  More, the acting itself isn't simply creepy for the sake of effect, but informed by the subtext.  We can see how even in the flashback Allan, Francis and Jane all seem fragile.  Each seems potentially the victim of mental illness.  The easier, cheaper choice would have been to play them as already mad in some way.  "Fragile" works much better, and is also harder to pull off.  This cast did it, though!  Likewise, in this world-within-a-world passions simmer under the surface but bound by social rules.  How appropriate that here, a wedding proposal between two young people who clearly love one another is enacted with neither looking the other in the eye!

But what helps make this such a success is not only the fine performances or stunning look, but the fact the script by David Lee Fisher (who also directed) presses the button of fear and uncertainty we all feel.  How can we be sure?  Might not everything we believe be wrong?

Consider--in 1920 the world was reeling from the most vast and destructive war in history, one that devastated Europe and saw startling new forms of death wielded in ways no one seemed to have given serious thought to before.  More, that war had seemingly accomplished little good.  A dictatorial regime in an aggressive nation was replaced by an unstable democracy, rendering the heart of a vital part of the world uncertain of its future.  At the same time a dictatorial movement had seized power in a resource-rich nation and sought to expand that movement's sway.  That this movement was ill-understood by most only made things worse.  On top of all that, a terrible disease had come out of nowhere and wrecked havoc across the globe (the 1918 Spanish Flu).  All this in the wake of disasters involving what we'd regarded as the crowning achievement of our technological world of wonders (the Titanic).  The wealthy of the world saw their fortunes rise to dizzying heights while the poor in many ways got worse and worse.  Scientific breakthroughs were questioning our foundations of what we believed about reality (this was the heyday of Freud and Einstein) while new forms of communication ushered in social movements and changing gender roles that puzzled/threatened those unable to cope.

Sound familiar?  Is it any wonder that final scene in Caligari still moves us, still confuses and resonates?  Because we still are on Francis' side.  We still want Jane to love him, even though we now know she doesn't even know him.  We distrust the Doctor, even though he has done nothing wrong we know of--quite the opposite.  Francis screams at the end.  Don't we feel a little like screaming as well?

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