A Tim Burton ancestor: the hugable somnambulist

As part of the Tim Burton show at the MOMA (showing through April 26th), they are exhibiting a series of films called “Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters.” These are films that according to the MOMA staff have “… influenced, inspired, and intrigued Burton, and which reflect the motifs, themes, and sensibilities of his work.” Just scanning the list of monsters, mummies and evil villains, one of them caught my eye. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, a landmark German Expressionist film directed by Robert Wiene in 1920. One of my favorite early films, it’s a visual journey into a bold and hyper non-realistic world, with geometrical and striking high contrast sets. The backgrounds are often absurd and light and shadows are painted on walls and floors. It’s as if we’ve stepped into an insane but brilliant artist’s point of view.  No wonder Burton was inspired by this film.

The story follows Francis, who with his friend Alan visits a carnival where they see Dr. Caligari and the somnambulist Cesare, whom Caligari claims can answer any question. When Cesare tells Alan he will die before dawn and this in fact comes to pass,  Francis decides to investigate with the help of his girlfriend Jane. Dr. Caligari orders Cesare to kidnap and kill Jane but Cesare refuses to kill her once he finds himself entranced by her beauty. Cesare tries to escape and a chase ensues.

The Somnambulist is a classic Burton figure. He is sorrowful and innocent and at the same time frightening – a clear creative ancestor to characters like Edward Scissorhands. We begin to feel for him in his trapped and dark existence as the sensitive villain who was “created” by someone else and now must live out his tragic fate. Like most Burton characters, at times you actually kind of want to hug him.

Both in terms of its wildly experimental and purposefully artificial visual style and its characters, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI feels like a pre-historic taste of Burton. Check out the restored print showing at the MOMA or you can watch it here: