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This article by Christopher Zinsli was prepared for the October
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Ghouls & Goblins of Silent Film
A snakelike sleepwalker committing gruesome murders
in the middle of the night. A power-hungry madman controlling his
henchman through hypnosis, forcing him to carry out the malicious
deeds. An insane witness recounting the whole story.
These are scenes you would not expect to encounter at a church. But
on Halloween night, they are just a few of the sights to be witnessed
when "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is shown in a free
open to the public, at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton. The 1920 silent
classic, directed by Robert Wiene, has been hailed as a cinematic
milestone and as the quintessential German Expressionist film. It
will receive the five-star treatment at Trinity, complete with
by organist Ralph Ringstad, performing an original score, on the
impressive 4,000-pipe organ.
When the hypnotist Dr. Caligari opens a booth in a traveling fair,
the townspeople flock to see his show. Caligari proclaims that Cesare,
a somnambulist under Caligari’s control, is capable of seeing into
the future. At the same time, a series of mysterious and grisly
begin to plague the town. Is the strange, bespectacled Caligari behind
the murders? How are Cesare’s foretellings of demise involved?
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," which features Werner Krauss
as the doctor and Conrad Veidt as Cesare, is a nightmarish look
into the psyche of not just one character, but an entire culture.
Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, German culture turned
inward, and in the process uncovered a wealth of artistic energy that
manifested itself in films such as "Caligari." One of the
original reality-bending psychodramas, a grandfather to modern films
as diverse as "Vanilla Sky" and "Total Recall,"
virtually invented an entire language of expressionist film techniques
in lighting and set design. Recognized as a ground-breaking
it is still studied, discussed — and enjoyed — today.
The concept of film as a medium entirely distinct from theater was
still in its infancy when "Caligari" was made, so the
ideas of acting, blocking, and makeup for the camera were largely
still bound up with theater. Though the compositions in
show little or no camera movement, the great leaps made in
cinematography and set design turns each shot of "Caligari"
into an enigmatic expressionist painting come to life.
But how has such a dark, experimental film found its
way into a church? Michael McCormick, the organizer of the event,
says that Trinity’s role is as a patron of the arts.
was chosen for its artistic value, he says, and the screening is an
opportunity to "bring an art form that we don’t see very often
to the fore.
"It’s very much its own art form," McCormick says of silent
The cathedral itself is quite magnificent, a cavernous structure with
vaulted ceilings, stone floors, and beautiful stained-glass windows.
The organ is equally impressive, boasting four keyboards, 73 ranks,
and 4,167 pipes. A 19th century French design, the organ is one of
the largest in the state, and when in action, it is impressive.
A timeless horror film on Halloween night, a live score, a gorgeous
venue — why hasn’t anyone thought of doing this before? Actually,
McCormick has organized similar events, setting up screenings of such
silent classics as "Phantom of the Opera,"
and "Metropolis," for the past eight years. Now a part of
Trinity’s Cathedral Arts Series, the silent film show drew a
crowd last year with a screening of the 1926 film "The Bells,"
starring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff. Deborah Ford, music
at Trinity for the past four years, says the cathedral hopes to draw
in an even larger crowd this year.
"We asked ourselves, `What’s going to be fun?’" Ford says.
"We were looking for something with some adventure and some
both of which "Caligari" has in ample amounts. Ford says that
the organist Ringstad should have plenty of opportunities in composing
an eerie score to match the film’s unsettling tone.
Ringstad has performed silent film scores for several years, including
a monthly silent film screening at Darress Theater in Boonton and
several shows at Newark Symphony Hall. He has played organ for nearly
20 years, studying music at Ithaca College, and was the guest artist
for Trinity’s Halloween screening last year.
Trinity Cathedral, he notes, is an acoustically stunning space.
sound wonderful," he promises.
Ringstad earns high praise from both McCormick and Ford. "It’s
amazing," says McCormick of Ringstad’s scoring, which is mostly
improvisatory, developing and building on musical themes he creates
to suit the film. Attendees will be able to glance over from the
during the movie to see Ringstad at work.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of "Caligari" is its contribution
to visual style. Despite being made more than 80 years ago, its
go places in design that to this day remain largely unexplored. The
use of light in "Caligari" is also remarkable. The first of
the film’s murder scenes, composed entirely with shadows, still has
the power to shock. No small accomplishment given countless imitations
over the years and the ever-increasing verisimilitude of Hollywood
The upcoming screening of this landmark film promises to be an
evening for film enthusiasts and Halloween fright-seekers alike, a
rare opportunity to experience classic cinema as it was originally
— Christopher Zinsli
801 West State Street, Trenton, 609-392-3805. Come in costume for
the "Procession of the Ghouls." Free. Friday, October 31,
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