Before the release of The Jazz Singer in October 1927, marking the advent of “talking pictures” that have thus become the norm, sound was absent in the presentation of films. In fact, motion pictures were merely visual and devoid of any auditory prompts, which we have since come to learn, are just as, if not more important, in anchoring the observer’s emotions.
To remedy the humdrum hush throughout movie houses, pipe organists were hired to sit at their instrument — adjacent to a projection screen — to vivify an experience that otherwise would have taken advantage of only one of the senses. With only sheet music at their disposal, organists could reflect or influence moods by merely playing consonant and/or dissonant sounds. And unlike today where the score for every film is uniform and experienced the same way over loud speakers, live playing allowed for disparate peculiarities from one showing to the next.
Reliving this cinematic history has become a tradition of sorts at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (in partnership with LA Phil) where Clark Wilson, a 36-year veteran of the organ, and most recognized talent of his genre since arguably Looney Tunes’ Carl Stalling, has once again provided an accurate and rousing accompaniment on Halloween night, this time to the 1919 German silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
With an enthusiastic audience in tow, some of whom were dressed in costume attire, the personable Wilson offered a welcome historical context of how, for instance, organists, who often played five shows a day, three different films per week, smartly relied upon cue sheets to direct them. Wilson also expressed an interesting, though unfortunate, statistic of how the number of organists throughout the United States precipitously declined from 20,000 in 1926 to just 400 in 1934, when the chapter on this film tradition eventually closed until its resuscitation by the LA Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Directed by Robert Wiene, and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a fantastic choice to underscore the pathos of the organ and reminisce on a historical past. The film also belies its approximately 70-minute running time, leaving a lasting impact on viewers with its Franz Kafka-esque depiction of horror-ridden Expressionism. With its harrowingly angular set appearance and idiosyncratic characters, none of whom are more disarmingly diabolical than Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), the six-act plot highlights wanton power and control in what is perhaps a harbinger of the evil that would later rise out of the Weimar Republic.
With the atrocities of World War I having ended only a year earlier, the movie, though scattered with humor, is often darkly tense as a result of its bleak stylism – and even more so with Wilson’s stirring mastery of the organ. Told in flashback form from the perspective of harmless German citizen Francis (Friedrich Feher), who retraces how his fiancé Jane (Lil Dagover) came to acquire her dead-eyed condition, we learn of the opportunistic Dr. Caligari’s manipulation of a sinewy, macabre-looking somnambulist (sleepwalker) by the name of Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to do his murderous bidding.
Undoubtedly, some of the most heart-poundingly gripping moments, such as Cesar spasmodically opening his black-hole-like eyes for the first time, or terrifyingly snatching the seraphic Jane from her bed, are as haunting as they are because of the musical exposition that accentuates them. Like his predecessors from nearly a century ago, Wilson’s precision in mustering eerie whole tones, including discordant notes with the utmost calculation, swiftly compels the engagement of the observer.
Needless to say, as much as the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau-Stiftung Foundation (by way of Kino Lorber Video) has restored the 97-year-old masterwork to visual prominence, talented musicians like Wilson revitalize it just the same through the gift of meticulous sound.
For more information about LA Phil’s upcoming events at the Walt Disney Concert Hall – including more films with live musical accompaniment – please visit laphil.com/tickets/calendar-fullseason