Caligari: A Beautiful Half-Forgotten Dream

Flush with success from their sold-out screenings of early cinema classics Nosferatu and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Newcastle Castle presented silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on a cold halloween night, another sold-out show accompanied once again by a brick-rattling live performance from the Old Police House Collective. 

Introducing the film, I wandered through the astonishing impact and influence of Caligari, and the sinister backstory that inspired it.

It’s my pleasure to welcome you here to see an incredible piece of early cinema complemented by an equally incredible live soundtrack, and I’d like to say a huge thanks to Peter and the whole team at the Castle for putting this great evening together.

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Last time I was here I introduced a remarkable film called The Golem: How He Came into the World, a film released 96 years ago yesterday that was nearly entirely lost to time yet was was a absolute sensation upon its release and went on to leave a lasting legacy within the movie industry.

That film while hugely successful in its own right is overshadowed massively by another film which came out in the same year of 1920, the film we are here to see tonight.

the quintessential work of German expressionist cinema, and one of the most important and influential films of all time.

More famous and visually outlandish than its stunning contemporary the Golem, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not just one of the most outstanding examples of German Expressionism, the film goes far beyond that and has come over its many years with us to be considered the quintessential work of German expressionist cinema, and one of the most important and influential films of all time.

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Ostensibly the simple story of an insane hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who controls a bizarre sleepwalking man (Conrad Veidt), compelling this somnambulist to commit a series of murders, the film rightly deserves to bask in the never-ending praise heaped upon it – amongst many other things it has been called the first true horror film, the first cult film, the birth of film noir, the inception of arthouse cinema and more.

a meditation on authoritarianism, the power of the state, and even a premonition of the the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

The writers first conceived the story after a visit to a sinister circus sideshow in post-world war one Germany where they saw a hypnotised man perform incredible feats of strength, and they began formulating what would become Caligari that every night. One of the writers later commented that his time in the military also influenced the script, specifically through the mistrust of authority he built up during his time there.

The same writer also recalled witnessing some years previously the shocking scene of a young girl being dragged into some bushes, only to see a respectable looking man emerge a few moments later. The very next day he learned the girl was murdered, and this sinister event also left an indelible mark on him and what would become the story of Caligari.

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Filling the pages of endless film school dissertations for decades, the film – which among many other things features a non-linear narrative and one of the first twist endings in cinema – was revolutionary, and has been seen as a meditation on authoritarianism, the power of the state, and even a premonition of the the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

The film, for those who know it well and for those who are experiencing it for the first time (and I’m incredibly jealous of those people) is really quite an extraordinary thing.

making no attempt to emulate the real world, Caligari is a beautiful, half-forgotten dream

German expressionism is a highly symbolic and stylised form, a bold artistic style with wildly non-realistic sets, absurd angles and extreme distortions in expression with declarative intent sidelined in favour of an overarching, overpowering style intended to covey a deeper, inner emotional reality within the characters.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes this concept and runs with it.

Instead of rooftops we have the feeling of rooftops, instead of doors the idea of doors, queasy distortions in scale, incredible sets – with shadows painted directly onto them – and abstract storytelling with character motivation implied less through surface mannerisms than through the stunning visual style of the film.

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Making no attempt to emulate the real world, Caligari is a beautiful, half-forgotten dream, and as with all silent films of the era, you really do get out what you put in.

Let the bizarre story, eerie visuals and queasy tone under your skin, appreciate the fact that this is a pioneering piece of cinema that has informed everything from Nosferatu to Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin to Universal Horror, Beetlejuice to Batman Returns, and you are in for a bit of a treat.

The unique soundtrack for this screening is brought to you by Newcastle upon Tyne’s very own Old Police House Collective, and having seen first hand the stunning work they produced right here in the hall to accompany silent cinema last time I was here, I’m incredibly excited too see what they do for us tonight.

Ultimately we are all very lucky. Lucky to have had this film survive to be seen all these years later, resonating through time as it approaches its 100th anniversary, and even luckier still to be a bunch of strangers experiencing it together on a Halloween  weekend night with a very special soundtrack from these hugely talented artists.

Thank you for listening, and enjoy the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Leigh Venus at Newcastle Castle, 30 October 2016