The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
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It is one minute to midnight at the Fringe. This is the usual province of desperate comedians willing to impress crowds of abusive drunks, but here in George Square Theatre is something a bit different. Here, a gathering of yawning, sleepy-eyed spectators are about to partake in something of a shared dream.

Or should that be a shared nightmare? The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is rightly feted as the highpoint of German expressionist cinema. Released in 1919, it remains an unsettling and macabre tale of madness and murder, the stuff of far too much midnight dreaming.

Providing musical accompaniment for this silent masterpiece is the quartet Minima, who have seemingly made it a speciality of theirs to produce 21st century soundtracks to films from 100 years hence. They sit to the left of the screen and are noticeable to the audience only as crouched figures occasionally moving in the gloom.

Finding myself wavering in and out of consciousness, the disturbing tale of Caligari and his sideshow specimen sleeper, Cesare, seems to almost play out underneath my eyelids. It feels as though being part of a collective limnal state, heightened by the occasionally grotesque characterisation and overtly stylised design of the film.

Indeed, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is so unique in its appearance and visual narrative, that any newly composed soundtrack could revel in abstraction and dissonance in order to unsettle and disorientate the viewer further. Unfortunately, Minima provide a fairly conventional musical score using straightforward guitar, bass and drums with flickers of electronics and haunting violin. The overall effect is mid-nineties trip-hop.

This isn’t to say the music is bad, certainly not. Minima furnish Caligari himself with a jauntily sinister theme, and the sequence in which Cesare the Somnambulist first awakens is accompanied by spine-tingling electric violin howls. But too much of the time it feels as though Minima are just playing along while the film screens as their own private music video, akin to the way eighties pop stars such as Madonna and Queen would use silent cinema iconography in the early days of MTV.

There are a couple of really clunky moments also, particularly during a chase sequence in which a cheesy Peter Gunn style guitar riff manages to transform onscreen events into a knackered old ITV cop show. I keep longing for the music to be weirder and stranger so as to pull us even further under Caligari’s spell.

But it’s worth it for the deranged power of the original film and the moments when Minima get it absolutely right, such as the spectral eeriness they conjure during the opening and closing scenes set in Caligari’s asylum. At these points I also felt trapped in the garden with our doomed hero Francis, watching the silent figures as they move to and fro, a chasm having opened up between myself and the “real” world mere feet away.

Daily at Assembly George Square Theatre until 28 August, performance time 23:59.