Corrections or additions?

This article by Christopher Zinsli was prepared for the October

29, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

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

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral,

801 West State Street, Trenton, 609-392-3805. Come in costume for

the "Procession of the Ghouls." Free. Friday, October 31,

8 p.m.

Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments