What to do on a rainy, foggy night in November? Tune in to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920-21) at Bard College’s Sosnoff Theater where the restored 2014 print plays with a seven-piece orchestra and an energetic tap dancer, Jerry Cliquot, whose percussion played a more dramatic role than one might think. Yet the heart of this Roots and Rags jazz ensemble was Chris Washburne on slide trombone, Evan Christopher’s Otherworldly wailing clarinet, and Dominick Farinacci blasting on hot trumpet; and then there’s Ben Rosenbloom making the piano sound like Joplin and/or Bartok, while Charles Goold snapped and bopped away at drums in sync with bass guitarist Leo Travesa, as Brianna Thomas sang high and low, but mostly sweet high with impeccable phrasing. And this was all before the flick even began rolling. As Prelude the ensemble launched into a funky extended version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” that evoked musical elements of rag and blues that preceded Joplin’s classic.
No, the film was not anti-climactic. Washburne’s score employed elements of ragtime, blues, and showtime music strictly from 1920-21. The dramatic thrust of the score brought more power and emotional clarity to the screen which provided an eccentric and bizarre dreamscape from German Expressionism: serpent lines, crooked lines, diminishing circles, unexpected camera angles, abrupt cuts. This was the Wizard of Oz (Oz is Norse for God) in reverse, upside down, down-and-out. Facial expressions of the silent actors were enhanced more by the musical score than English subtitles, yet the German was so concise and simple that I often did not need subtitles.
The film dwells in the folkloric realm of trickster devil tales. The ironically named Dr. Caligari (The Fermenting Sun) dazzles a village with his Zombie show, turning the whole town into a lunatic asylum with himself as the Medical Director of the Asylum. Caligari takes sheer delight in his jaunty sadism as he pulls the proverbial wool over everyone’s eye. But this in 1920 and how can it be that this crazy film rings so contemporary?
Arriving as an oblique parable on the social lunacy of the first World War like Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23), the film depicts society as a lunatic circus where the mad rule those of good heart. The destruction of tender lovers, wanton murder, cascades of semi-eloquent lies bamboozle the police department, the scholars who read of Caligari’s monstrous deeds in a book, and nearly the somnambulant audience gazing at the screen. This is a droll meta-film about the devil’s oldest trick: chutes-and-ladders fascism.
Acclaimed by leering film-buffs as the first horror movie, it remains a dynamic allegory for all time. The real problem with the story is that people don’t believe that it is so easy for a narcissistic cunning liar to fool most people—that remains contrary to common sense, except it does happen: all you need to do is flick on the television set and see Caligari in action every day. And not many at the time appeared to notice how prophetic this Cabinet of horrors was. How many zombies are there in the current Cabinet? Not a subject many wish to discuss.
But there were no zombies on stage where the music danced, ragged, and flowered as it adroitly segued from one spyglass scene to another claustrophobic microcosm of this nightmare world without straight lines and where dissonant horns and piano swelled to deliver emotions in the present with that old rag- and-bone clickety-clack.
P.S. A more comic use of German Expressionism appears in the early scenes of the musical Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and even more so in its 2005 sequel, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.