27 March 2002 | ninepence
Discovering Silent Film...
It struck me last night that I've never seen a serious silent film. Everyone's seen a silent comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops... They've all been immortalized in the minds of every film viewer, and I enjoy them as much as anyone. But it seems a strange and almost disrespectful lack to never have seen anything but comedy; so many silent films were created, and the only ones I've seen starred waddling tramps.
It was partially for that reason that I rented this movie. I had read about it on a film review site (the name of which escapes my memory) and decided it was worth the half-hour drive to the video store. The basic premise is that of a man relating a story that happened to him and his friends - their unnerving discovery of a crazed mountebank, Dr. Caligari, and his prophetic sleepwalker. It follows a series of murders and growing madness, keeping you in constant suspense and confusion until the very last scene.
There's a period of adjustment when watching it - unfortunately necessary for a modern audience. The titles seem too slow. The camera seems to hold on scenes too long. The makeup on the actors' faces seem ghostly and horrible - even on the hero.
But before long, the movie has you in its grip. You spend time staring at the architecture - buildings, doors, and windows that would have been funny in a Dr. Seuss book. In the film, they make you uneasy. The whole atmosphere is of a world gone wrong; like a dream worthy of Salvador Dalí. Nothing is square or straight. The buildings loom in on you; windows sweep upward, slanted or curved; doors are obscenely angled holes beckoning you to enter and be trapped inside.
Throughout, the story defies expectations. Small plot twists confuse and mislead you until the final surprise, completely tearing down everything you thought the movie was about. Strange shadows and shots from inside alleys paint the film's world as something terrible, never allowing you a normal look at the village, never allowing you to enjoy the quaintness of it. Through it all, the grinning, hunched figure of Dr. Caligari hangs in your mind, pushing out rational thought.
The movie is well worth your time; there's a certain pleasure in trying to capture the feeling of terror an early audience, unaccustomed to the visual effects we see every day, would have had the first time they saw this movie. It's an intellectual terror in the grand old style, giving you the same thrill you get from reading Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At the risk of sounding cliché: two thumbs up!