Film History part I
written by J.A.Bohr
continued from Page Three
The central plot is about a "mountebank monk" (hypnotist) who opens a show at the fair in the town of Holstenwall. His act is a somnambulist (hypnotised sleepwalker) who predicts people's deaths. A rash of murders begin occurring after they arrive. Following the death of Francis' friend, Alan, he begins to suspect Caligari. After Jane is attacked, but not killed, she tells the police it was Cesare, the somnambulist, who tried to kill her. Eventually Francis, after doing some investigations of his own, proves to the police it is Caligari who is trying to master mind control and is responsible. When confronted by the police and the body of Cesare (who is found dead in a ravine), Caligari goes mad and is placed in a straight-jacket.
We return to the two men talking in the park, as Francis finishes telling his story. It is now that we find Francis is an inmate of an asylum run by the man who Francis claims to be Caligari. Now it is Francis who is placed in a straight-jacket. The film ends with a shot of the doctor followed by an intertitle which says "At last I recognise his mania. He believes me to be the mythical Caligari. Astonishing! But I think I know how to cure him now." Know how to cure him now? The narrative leaves one pondering what has happened before that has inspired such a tale, and is this respected director of an asylum partially responsible for the torment this man's reality is experiencing. As Mast and Kawain write about Dr. Caligari, "The central story is no simple tale told by an idiot. If the kindly doctor is really not the demented Caligari, why does it feel so creepy when he says at the very end, that he knows "how to cure" Francis?"9
But the magic of Dr. Caligari is truly the set and artistic direction of Warm, Rohrig, and Reimann. The feel of the scenes is dread. There is an artistic beauty to the hillside where Francis chases Cesare. Grass is multi-patterned spikes rising off the hill under a sinister twisted tree. In the government office subtle political sentiments are shown where Caligari must talk to an official who sits on an overly tall pedestal overlooking his desk after climbing up a large ominous stairwell. The whole town of Holstenwall is twisted and distorted. "Hermann Warm, the principle designer, belonged to a group that believed "films should be drawings brought to life," and Caligari lives up to that demand; it is an inhabited graphic world, an Expressionist visual conception that moves."10
Although we see the extreme make-up and costuming, elaborate lighting and set usage, German Expressionism does not try to uplift and fascinate audiences with feats of magic like George Melies or dazzle and mystify us with the colour, fire, and fantasy like Segundo de Chomon. Instead it uses these elements to create worlds far more illusive, the worlds of the mind.
The Last Laugh (1924)
German Expressionism only begins with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Throughout the 1920s German film and art directors continued honing their art of expressing the darker side of emotion. In Murnau's Nosferatu we find ourselves confronting vampires who command the darker sides of nature itself. Film magic takes control as doors mysteriously open by themselves and objects move about on their own. Murnau does not rely on the harsh contrast in lighting seen in the works of Wiene or Lang, instead the scenes are more even toned (gray-scaled appearance). This lack of extreme contrast in no way takes from the dark dread of Dracula's castle as it looms over us.
The Last Laugh is not based in the darker sides of nature, but in the darker side of life in the cities, the influence of authority and the fragile nature of social standings. Skyscrapers loom upward shadowing the workers that serve the powers. This Murnau is visually darker than Nosferatu, with deep contrasts and light play. As the lead character gets drunk, the camera mirrors his view staggering the shot. In one scene we see our lead in his employer's office from outside a window. The camera view then "moves through the window" into the room. As he reads a disheartening notice from his employer, his eyes tear up as the camera's image is brought out of focus. The Last Laugh uses the camera to bring you inside of the experiences of our lead character's life. Once again it is the artistic beauty of the sets (which are all artificial studio sets) which bring this film alive. An interesting fact is that this film has only one intertitle which feels as out of place as the "tagged" on ending the film has. But in defence of the odd happy ending, it does leave us feeling better, yet does not diminish the reality we have just experienced through our character's difficulties with his employment.
continued on Page Five