And now, a few words about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, who dubbed the 1920 German silent: “…this barbaric carnival of the destruction of the healthy human infancy of our art, this common grave for normal cinema origins, this combination of silent hysteria, particolored canvases, daubed flats, painted facesand the unnatural broken gestures and actions of monstrous chimaeras.”
It's all true. Produced by impresario Erich Pommer, directed by Robert Wiene and designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig to incorporate the Expressionist motifs of German painting, theater and poetry, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a masterpiece of unhealthy impulses, a meticulous mongrelization of a young and malleable medium that elevated the debasements of a national consciousness. Watching Caligari today — with its creepy story of a mad mesmerist and the somnambulist who carries out his evil bidding, its pointedly raked and painted sets, its atmospheric lighting and phantasmic performances — still delivers a hot hit of mass madness, a portrait of the pierced and shattered mood of a people who've been dragged through the ruin of a world war. Yet, far from lugubrious, Caligari radiates the kind of fierce glee that comes not just from the thrills of good horror, but from finding triumph in art.
Caligari concludes Cinefamily's series of German-Expressionist silents on January 30, but this weekend features a rare screening of the 1925 film Variety, starring Emil Jannings as a trapeze performer whose lovely, faithless wife drives him to murder. The plot is dreary, but the film, directed by E.A. Dupont, is anything but, shot through with sardonic tableaux (gawking crowds, hellish carnivals, wild parties), freewheeling camera work and — above all — the enthralling presence of Jannings, who, with only a slump and a grimace, embodies a whole world of hurt. Also screening: F.W. Murnau's fantastic '26 take on Faust.
(Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater; Wednesdays at 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 30. www.silentmovietheatre.com.)