Category Archives: German Expressionism

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

“In the grip of an obsession.”

If you are the slightest bit interested in discovering what German Expressionism is all about, then there’s no better place to start than with the 1920 horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Directed by Robert Wiene, the film begins with two men sitting on a bench exchanging their stories of woe. One of the men, Francis (Friedrich Feher) says that his troubles all began when the fair came to the small town of Hostenwall….

A rotund, shabby, toad-like and repulsive individual named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) arrives in town and takes his sideshow to the fair. Here he attracts a large audience to see his somnambulist–a young man named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who’s kept in a coffin, and brought out by Caligari to answer the audience’s questions. Caligari brags that Cesare can answer questions about the past, present or the future, but Caligari also uses Cesare to commit a series of horrible murders in the town.

Gripping, mesmerizing and infinitely creepy, this film maintains its bizarre, grotesque otherworldly atmosphere to the very last frame. It’s a perfect example of German Expressionism–with unrealistic sets painted with bold, wild geometric designs, and objects set at impossible angles. The complexities of this impressively eerie film must be seen to be appreciated, but the most amazing scenes occur when Caligari’s ego becomes entangled with the fate of the somnambulist. Just how this silent film manages to convey Caligari’s imagination and runaway ego is truly impressive.

This Image DVD is marvelous quality for its age–however, a horizontal line appears through some of the frames. Image states that this is a fault in the print and they made the decision to leave it–rather than crop it out. The DVD also includes commentary by film scholar Mike Budd and a 3-minute portion of the film, Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire. The clip was just long enough to intrigue me. Film buffs, silent film lovers, or those interested in the beginnings of horror film, do yourself a favour and seek out this film.

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Nosferatu (1922)

“You can’t escape destiny by running away.”

Set in the sleepy German town of Bremen, the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu is based on the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula. The film company was unable to obtain the rights to the story, so the names of the Stoker’s main characters were changed to avoid legal complications. Bram Stoker’s widow sued anyway, and won. All existing copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed by the court handling the case, but since many copies were already in circulation, Nosferatu was not lost.

In this version of the vampire legend, a young married man, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is commissioned by the peculiar, repulsive Knock (Alexander Granach) to visit Count Orlock in Transylvania. Count Orlock, apparently wants to buy a house in Bremen, and Knock tells Hutter to travel to Transylvania and make the necessary arrangements with the Count. Knock tells his employee not to pay any attention to the stories of phantoms–it’s all nonsense. Hutter, who imagines that he’s hit the big time with this commission, travels to Transylvania leaving his wife, Ellen (Greta Schroeder) behind in the care of friends.

The trip to Transylvania builds up the suspense as Hutter travels closer and closer to the lair of the Count. Locals at an inn near the castle are full of dread, but Hutter laughs off their horror by blaming the rumours he’s been warned about. Even when he’s taken by coach to the castle, and dropped some way off because the coachmen fear to go closer, Hutter still proceeds on his journey. The Count’s nightmare castle is incredibly atmospheric, but it isn’t until Hutter slices his finger while eating dinner that it begins to dawn on him that there’s something wrong with this situation. The Count–who doesn’t look human–expresses an inordinate amount of interest in Hutter’s blood.

While Hutter becomes the Count’s next meal, his wife back in Bremen experiences horrible nightmares. Meanwhile the Count travels back to Bremen via his coffin in the cargo hold of a ship. The people back in Bremen begin to read newspaper accounts of the plague spreading throughout the region, and after Nosferatu’s coffin arrives, residents are found dead in their beds. Naturally the blame falls on the plague–a disease shrouded in mystery. Fearful residents in Bremen stay isolated in their homes, but death still finds them.

The element of sexuality always evident in later vampire films also exists in the symbolic surrender of a victim as she presents her neck to Nosferatu while collapsing on her bed. While the film is of great interest to anyone who likes silent film or German Expressionism, it’s also fascinating to watch the film and see how the Dracula legend mutated over the years with various versions. Modern versions of Dracula tend to portray him as an accomplished, enigmatic seducer. Nosferatu–on the other hand–looks like a ghoul.

F.W. Murnau’s film is a masterpiece of the imagination. Nosferatu is a nightmarish figure–a ghoul who rises from his coffin to relentlessly seek his food. The film–devoid of the special effects that dominate today’s cinema is gripping, and the scenes of the rats pouring out of the coffin are unforgettable. My Alpha DVD was fair quality given the film’s age. It was certainly watchable–one note however, in the subtitles, the original names–Count Dracula, Renfield etc. are used.

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Filed under German, German Expressionism, Silent