Before “Psycho,” before “Dracula,” before all of the film murders, monsters and mayhem to come, there was German director Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
Considered the first true horror film, this 1920 German expressionist silent centers on a traveling carnival hypnotist, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who comes to a small German town with his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who seems prone to act on Caligari’s most nefarious impulses. With the arrival of the pair, a series of deaths occur, even as screenwriters Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s (inspired by an actual incident at a German carnival) labyrinthine storyline pulls the rug out from under us on several occasions in the film as to the source of those homicides.
Influential film scholar Siegfried Kracauer has seen the film as a reflection of the German desire for a tyrannical leader and Cesare as a representative of German soldiers doing the bidding of political and military authorities. Even decades after its making, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” hasn’t lost any of its original power to disturb, or to amaze or reflect the moment of its historical production.
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“’The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is the basic DNA of cinema and new methods of how to tell a story,” attests New York-based DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, who will play his own original live score to accompany the film on Oct. 28 as part of the inaugural ATLARGE Music Film Festival.
The Oct. 27-29 festival — hosted at Georgia State University — is dedicated to uniting the two disciplines of film and music in a novel way. Featuring panels and workshops and a variety of films centered on music, the lineup includes the 1987 documentary about the 1980s Athens music scene “Athens, Ga. — Inside/Out” featuring the B-52s, Flat Duo Jets, R.E.M. and Pylon; and director Gerald Barclay’s 2007 story of the rise of the Staten Island hip-hop act, “Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan,” which will be followed by a Q&A session with the film’s director.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is an especially inspired choice for a festival that comes on the weekend before Halloween. From its distinctive sets, a gothic funhouse of dramatic, lacerating shadows and bizarre angles that cut the world up into shards, to Veidt’s chilling performance as the lean, angular ghoul who awakes from a 23-year slumber to emerge from his casketlike tomb and wreak havoc, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” has become legendary and deeply influential in film history for wedding its spooky, striking set design to the psychological state of its central characters. “Caligari”’s influential look was a manifestation of the warped perspective of its characters, an expression of state of mind via set design.
Part of “Caligari”’s unshakeable, eerie mood comes from the collaboration of three theatrical stage designers, Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, trying their hand for the first time at film design. From the film’s very inception, even before the real madness begins, clerks’ offices and city streets look designed by Dr. Seuss, undulating blocks of homes with triangular doors and absurdly peaked roofs. In the post-WWI era, electricity was strictly rationed, so gradations of dark and light were simply painted on backdrops in lieu of using lights to cast shadows. That use of design to convey psychology greatly influenced later German classics like “Metropolis,” “Nosferatu” and “M,” but also post-WWII American film noir, which used inky shadows and similarly ominous set design to reflect the cynicism and nihilism of the postwar era.
“I’ve been really interested in silent film and the way music changes how a film makes an immersive experience,” says Miller. “’The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is really one of the first ‘psychological’ films because it shows how it’s all in the characters’ mind,” he adds.
A frequent performer in Atlanta, Miller has made a micro-career of creating original scores to accompany silent films, from the divisive 1915 pro-Ku Klux Klan D.W. Griffith drama “The Birth of a Nation,” to early African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” (1925). Miller says he was drawn to “Caligari” for its expressive qualities.
“There’s a couple other films that are out there that are this influential, but none have the same intensity that makes ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ such a classic,” notes Miller.
“Paul’s music for the film is really sharp, and the film is revolutionary and quite beautiful. It’s a very smart horror film,” says ATLARGE Festival organizer Robert Ganger, a veteran music and film festival producer who moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles. A fan of music-centered films, Ganger longed for an opportunity to spotlight the genre. “I think that there’s an audience hungry to see these kind of films — music docs, biopics, narratives where music is the soul of the film.”
Ganger gravitated toward Georgia State University, with its strong film department, and worked with David M. Cheshier, director of the school’s Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) tasked with training students in the film industry, to present ATLARGE.
“Soundtracks are some of the best ways to get a film to have a different feeling,” acknowledges Miller of the impact music can have on a film’s tone. Showing one more serendipitous bridge between film and music, Miller observes that both depend on editing to heighten emotion and invest audiences in the experience. “DJ’ing is all about the remix, but so is film,” says Miller. “It’s all about the way you edit whatever is in front of you.”
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” followed by a Q&A panel with DJ Spooky. 7 p.m. Oct. 28. Georgia State University’s Florence Kopleff Recital Hall, 10 Peachtree Center Ave. SE, Atlanta.
The film is part of the ATLARGE Music Film Festival, Oct. 27-29, various Georgia State venues. $8 for single film; $20 for single-day pass; $50 for weekend pass. atlargefest.com.