When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari hit German movie screens in 1920, it baffled and delighted audiences who had primarily been entertaining themselves with annual Film Festivals of Fred Ott’s sneeze and footage of trains. Techniques that we take for granted today – flashbacks, special effects, Germans, twist endings – were deployed first by the film’s director, Robert Weine, over several months of production.
Dr. Caligari is back on the big screen in the D.C. area thanks to award-winning composer Tom Teasley’s labor of love. Teasley and Constellation Theatre Company are offering audiences, for six performances only, the chance to watch Dr. Caligari accompanied by live music.
Teasley is a multi-Helen Hayes winner for his work with Constellation Theatre. He combines “ancient instruments with digital technology” to create less a traditional soundtrack, and more an unsettling soundscape that unnerves and disorients the viewer.
Dr. Caligari is odd enough on its own: Dr. Caligari arrives in a village, we’re told, with a somnambulist on display in a wooden cabinet. (This isn’t the twist, but Dr. Caligari feeds the somnambulist some sort of porridgey pudding and so “trigger warning” I guess if you need it.) Murders ensue, women are kidnapped, hapless heroes are deceived by life-sized dolls, all against a backdrop of odd angles, dim lighting, and obscuring make-up.
Teasley sits to the right of the screen, surrounded by drums, keyboards, violin bows, and wooden flutes. It’s a delicate tension; who do we watch? The actors on the screen, or Teasley, as he percusses his way through the action?
If Teasley pulls focuses, it’s because he deserves to. He is, in a sense, another character in this film. Those who come to the movie knowing the story of Dr. Caligari won’t miss as much if they find themselves transfixed by Teasley’s performance. Others – especially those with a love of silent-era films and German Expressionism (welcome to Tinder, ladies) – who haven’t seen Dr. Caligari may want to go twice: once to experience Weine’s disturbing look at mania and murder, and again to appreciate Teasley’s seamless work.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with music by Tom Teasley plays through August 13, 2017 at Constellation Theatre Company – 1835 14th Street, in Washington D.C. Tickets are available at the door, or purchase them online.