Caligari and German Expressionism

Because I manage projects with teams in Central Standard Time and India Standard Time, when crises occur, they unfold over 24 hours rather than eight. This week I’m dealing with a really major, round-the-clock crisis, so posts are going to be very irregular this week and, in the worst case scenario, into next week.

This week Dave Kehr features Kino International’s DVD package of German Expressionist films from the 1920s, including Robert Wiene’s great The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film is cutting edge as an artwork, but rather primitive as a movie, even for 1919, when it was made. The German film market was cut off from innovative American and French films during World War I, so when film production resumed after the war, German directors were several years behind in terms of filmic technique. It didn’t take them long to catch up.

Despite its static camera work and crude editing, Caligari is a tour de force. As Kehr points out, even though film Expressionism ran its course fairly quickly, its visual motifs lived on in film noir. Kehr also summarizes Siegfried  Kracauer’s famous analysis of Caligari and other Weimar films. Kehr makes the interesting observation that the figure of Caligari now seems much less sinister than he did in 1920, although to be fair to Kracauer, he was relying on the memory of seeing Caligari 25 years earlier.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an Intro to Film Studies chestnut, but it’s an amazing movie. It still inspires fascination. I haven’t seen any of the other films in the Kino collection, but German Expressionism was a film movement unlike anything before it. It’s a very important chapter in film history.

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