The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
by Jon Bastian
You might ask yourself, “Why bother to re-do a silent classic?” David Lee Fisher answers your question…
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Once upon a time, in the ’80s, Ted Turner put the film industry’s panties into a major twist when he started colorizing old films. There was mild outrage. Then, Turner announced that he was going to colorize Citizen Kane, film purists went through the roof, and the whole restoration/remastering industry was born. I can’t help but think that Turner was laughing all the way to the bank, and his Citizen Kane comment was a calculated lie. After all, fueled by home video (and, later, DVD), the studios actually began to look into their vaults and try to reconstruct and restore old movies—beginning with the classics, but then moving on to anything with any commercially exploitable angle. (“Look. Robert Blake has a two-line cameo. Let’s get it onto a special edition DVD…”) Thanks to the film library he had bought years earlier from MGM, Turner wound up sitting on a goldmine.
He was crazy like a fox.
When it was originally announced that David Lee Fisher was going to “remake” the 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (reviewed here), I’m sure that film purists everywhere reacted with the same outrage as they did over colorization. I had a little bit of the same reaction myself, thinking that we’d get some bastardized Hollywood update, in which Robert Wiene’s expressionistic tale of suspense would be turned into an R-rated teens in peril splatter fest.
Luckily, David Lee Fisher is crazy like a fox. He himself refers to this new Caligari as a remix. I think the truth is somewhere between the two points. On the one hand, most of the sets are, quite literally, lifted from the original, in an act of prestidigitalization that puts modern actors right into Wiene’s original designs and shots. Also, the story follows the original with few changes or updates. If anything, although the original film was one of the first to delve into human psychology and its effects on perception and memory, Fisher goes a little bit deeper into the nuances, bringing what might really have been going on between Francis and his best friend just a little bit more to the surface.
So, I had high hopes, but the first time I watched Fisher’s version, I was left a bit cold and uninvolved. As a work of cinematic art, it was truly amazing. As a moving story, not so much. But an interesting thing happened. It inspired me to get my hands on a copy of the original, then start watching them side-by-side, to see how close the remix was to its source.
An interesting thing happened. While the original is one of my three favorite silent films, watching it in comparison actually made Fisher’s version better. For example, I initially thought that Daamen J. Krall, the modern Caligari, was a pale imitation of Werner Krauß’s classic take on the titular Ph.D. (Krall is better known as a voice actor). In fact, though, by comparison, Krauß is a bit clownish in his performance, and often looks as if he’s about to have a spectacular and loud attack of gas. Krall humanizes the character, making him both more menacing and more vulnerable at the same time. Of course, Krauß was only thirty-six when he played the part. It probably helps that Krall is a bit more… um… mature.
Maturity doesn’t help Doug Jones (Hellboy), though, in the pivotal role of Cesare, the somnambulist. Originally essayed by Conrad Veidt at the age of 26, he instantly created an indelible visual that has gone on to influence everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank N. Furter to Edward Scissorhands. He’s probably the one thing people do remember if they’ve only casually caught the film or watched it in some long-ago college class. Jones misses the mark in two regards, one his fault and the other not. His Cesare is too clearly empathetic and emotionally involved, which plays against what the character should be, and he talks (I blame the director there); but he’s also just too old, with a good twenty years on Veidt. Despite—or because of—the whiteface his character wears, Jones frequently resembles nothing more than a tired old drag queen coming home from a long night of drinking, and it dilutes the menace of the character. Seriously, there were moments when he reminded me of Judy Garland, which isn’t a good thing in this context.
All that said, though, the real find in this film is its lead, Judson Pearce Morgan (Cold Case), who steps into shoes occupied by Friedrich Feher, then walks away with them after doing an amazing tap dance. Feher perhaps suffered from “silent movie leading man” disease—all histrionic looks and extravagant gestures. Morgan embodies Francis as a tragic character, and there isn’t a wasted thought or gesture in his performance. We “get” him from his first appearance, and it makes the story of Caligari all the stronger because of it.
The other players are of varying levels of competence, with standouts being a brief appearance by Alan Altshuld (Star Trek: Voyager) as a Clerk’s assistant who looks like he was yanked right out of the world of the original film and plopped into this one, and Richard Herd (Star Trek: Voyager) as an officious police commissioner. Also notable is Neil Hopkins (Lost), who makes an all-too-brief appearance as Francis’s best friend, Alan.
Back to the remix vs. remake issue—this Caligari is definitely a remake, with a much expanded script built around the original story. Yes, many of the sets and locations are sucked right out of the original, as are a lot of the shots and compositions. But putting it side-by-side with the original shows pretty quickly that it’s far from a shot-by-shot recreation, and the moderate re-ordering of scenes begins almost immediately after the first. Not to mention that, because it has a full script with dialogue, the story itself is a lot more developed.
If anything, Fisher has created a loving homage to a classic by recreating that classic in a modern idiom, taking nothing away but giving a lot back. Ironically, it’s probably only the people fairly familiar with the original who will appreciate his efforts—it even took me a re-viewing of the 1919 version to see that. But it’s definitely a film worth seeing, for several reasons. If you’re a film purist, it will help disabuse you of the notion that old films are sacred; it isn’t whether they’re remade or “re-imagined”, but how. If the only time you’ve seen a silent film is when your TV speakers busted, then this is a good way to get used to a silent story without have to strain yourself too much. After that, go watch the original. Or vice-versa.
In fact, it’s surprising (since the original is in the public domain) that both versions weren’t released on one DVD. But don’t let that stop you. Buy the new version, then pick up the original, which you can do for about four bucks. Then watch them in either order or at the same time, but watch them both.
And realize this—by remaking the original in such a faithful form, David Lee Fisher has done the film community a great service. He’s Hollywood-proofed Caligari, and for that we can thank him. We won’t have to put up with the teens in peril splatter fest version, not for a long, long time—but with any luck, his version will take us through the next ninety years.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in L.A. If you happen to be in San José in July and August, catch his play Noah Johnson… at the Renegade Theatre Experiment. Yes, that was a plug.
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