Saturday, August 6, 2011

Caligari At The Cathedral

Went to see The Cabinet of Dr Caligari last night in St Canice's Cathedral as part of this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival. The music was provided by my old favourites 3epkano along with organist Eric Sweeney. The 19th century organ is one of the biggest in Europe and looks like it came from The Phantom of the Opera. Most people I spoke to afterwards seemed to think it didn't contribute as much as they were expecting but this is a minor quibble in what was a wonderful experience. The Cathedral was a suitably gothic venue for the screening, the mediaval arches of the alter bathed in flourescent blue, the musicians hidden in the dark behind the screen, everyone sat happily in their pews, worshipping at the high altar of cinema.

The film cast its spell too. Despite some ripe acting it's still remarkably effective, sophisticated story-telling mining psychology, dreams, prophecy and fear. Werner Krauss is indelible as Dr. Caligari, a malevolent imp, a nightmare figure, irrational and devious, while Conrad Veidt is unforgettable as somnambulist killer Cesare, bringing subtlety and otherworldly grace to cinema's first great monster. The moment he opened his eyes at the fair was truly electrifying (due, in no small part, to 3epkano's rising, intense accompaniment). The famous expressionist sets, with their painted shadows, distorted perspectives, warped windows and angular, narrow streets, still work even now as a disorienating mechanism for audiences, the action imbued with unsettling dream-logic, a fable-like quality that remains strangely disturbing.

Other highlights were Cesare's kidnapping of the heroine and the asylum director's obsession toppling over into insanity represented by the name Caligari appearing everywhere around him. Moments of irrational intensity then, expressive fantasy, a knife in the dark to realism's throat that just won't go away. It's influence has been huge, from James Whale's Frankenstein to Scorsese's Shutter Island. As usual, 3epkano did a wonderful job of responding to the film's rhythms and moods, partly rehearsed, partly improvised, they made it another unforgettable experience in suitably exalted surroundings.

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