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Genre bender

September 21, 2010

Arguably the best example of German Expressionist cinema, the silent masterpiece "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was released to cinemas 90 years ago. A festival in Berlin is keen to keep its memory alive.

Still from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The film's expressionist style is still influential todayImage: npb

Ninety years after its release in Berlin, the film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is still recognized as having kick-started Expressionist cinema, launched horror as a viable film genre, and introduced new narrative concepts such as flashbacks and twist endings. It was a major influence on directors such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, who adopted Caligari's inventive and atmospheric use of light and shadow.

Now, the film has inspired its first festival, called Somnambule. Held in Weissensee - the same Berlin neighborhood where the film was originally shot - the Somnambule festival featured 10 days of film screenings, dance performances and exhibitions, all dedicated to the memory of a German masterpiece.

History of a 'milestone'

"It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe this film as a milestone," said Nils Foerster, the program director at the Brotfabrik arts and culture center, where the festival was held. "Its influence can still be seen in film and art to this day."

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, who met in Berlin just after World War I. They were fans of the then rapidly developing wave of Expressionist art, and thought film could be a new platform for the style.

The pair decided to develop a horror story - a genre well-suited to the macabre and disorienting direction they visualized for their film. They approached legendary producer Erich Pommer, then head of the Decla-Biscop studio. He bought their script idea on the spot and agreed to produce the film in an avant-garde, Expressionist style.

Screening room at the festival
The festival aims to be an annual eventImage: Somnambule/Klaus-Henning Foerster

After director Fritz Lang initially turned the project down, Robert Wiene was assigned to direct the film in 1919 - although Lang still had an influence on the film. It was he who suggested bookending the main story with scenes set in a normal garden, creating a stark contrast to the bizarre, off-kilter world in which the film's main narrative takes place.

A film full of 'firsts'

Much has been written about Caligari's novel use of artistic design; the dizzying dreamworld at the heart of the film was created by Hermann Warm and set decorators Walter Reihmann and Walter Roehrig. Their use of skewed, paper sets which played with perspective, and had shadows painted directly onto them, was absolutely novel.

Producer Pommer was wary at first, but after seeing test scenes, he was won over and gave his team free reign to produce the film as they saw fit.

still from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Atmospheric lighting, distorted set design and exaggerated make-up combine to create a bizarre dreamworldImage: picture alliance

The story was also one of the first in cinema to be told in flashback. It concerns the villainous Dr. Caligari, played by Werner Krauss. Krauss was one of Germany’s most highly-respected actors at the time, but his career was later tainted after he appeared in the 1940 Nazi propaganda film "Jud Suess." A young Conrad Veidt was cast as Caesare, Caligari's murderous accomplice, a somnambulist - or sleepwalker - who stalks the streets at night murdering young women. Actress Lil Dagover played Jane, the sleeping beauty kidnapped by Caesare.

As if the novel set design and flashback framing device weren't revolutionary enough, the film is also credited with being the first in cinema history to introduce a twist-ending. At the film's conclusion it transpires that the events related by narrator Fancis to his friend Alan are not true at all: Francis, Jane and Caesare are all inmates of a lunatic asylum, with Caligari the asylum's chief medical officer.

The Somnambule festival logo
Somnambule patterned its logo on Expressionist artImage: Somnambule 2010

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" went into production at the Lixie-Atelier in Weissensee, just a few blocks from where the Brotfabrik stands today - making it an utterly appropriate place to hold the Somnambule festival, according to the Brotfabrik's Foerster. .

"Wiessensee was the heart of the German film industry in the 1920s," Foerster said. "Nobody knows this anymore."

The film premiered at the Marmorhaus Cinema in Berlin on February 26, 1920. It was an immediate hit with critics and at the box office at home and abroad - and its influence is still felt in art world.

"In our film program, there were movies from 1924 to 2010, all of which were directly or indirectly influenced by 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.'" said Foerster. "It was a trend-setter in the formative years of cinema, and the rules of set design and film language which it created are still valid to this day."

Text: Gavin Blackburn

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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