‘Caligari Comes To Town: A decline in impact of the classic German horror?’

Advertisement for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
in The St. Andrews Citizen, 5 March, 1949.

In 1949, The St. Andrews Film Society – formerly known as The Dundee and St. Andrews Film Society – relaunched on its own, with an opening performance of Raymond Bernard’s Les Otages. For this opening event at the New Picture House on 20 February, each of the 150 members in attendance were personally greeted by Mr. A. B. Paterson, the original founder of The Byre Theatre and a key figure in St. Andrews’ artistic community. While the society would become an integral part of the town’s artistic community – through its Sunday evening screenings – its second performance on Sunday March 6thhighlighted a series of challenges facing the newly-formed society.

The film chosen for this second event was Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) (St Andrews Citizen, 19 February 1949). The choice of Caligari is significant for a number of reasons, not least as a German film made in the aftermath of the First World War, which was now screened in the aftermath of the Second World War. The choice also shows how the reformed St. Andrews Film Society sought to portray itself to the town. By picking Les Otages and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligarias their first two screenings, the society was foregrounding international films already celebrated within the film canon. It wanted to educate the town on films which were thought of as well-crafted, and which created a counterpart to the Hollywood imports often shown throughout the week.

Yet, according to a review of the Caligari screening in The St. Andrews Citizen, the audience were far from impressed (The Citizen, 12 March 1949). The article states that when made in 1919, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a film intent on ‘horrifying’ but now in 1949, the ‘crude technique, compared with films of today, relieved the tension for the St Andrews audience by the comic effect of its most dramatic moments.’ 30 years after its initial release, Caligari was seen to have lost its sinister atmosphere and frightening impact – audiences were now laughing at scenes which had once evoked fear, and comparing Caligari’stechnical aspects to modern films of the 1940s.

The idea of technology failing to transition well through the years is also apparent in another aspect of the screening. According to the newspaper, the society were informed that the film took 81 minutes to show, but this was on the old, silent projector, whereas ‘on the high speed modern sound projector, the film went through in an hour’, significantly transforming the film for the modern audience. The screening was instead presented as ‘an interesting study’ which ‘underlined the technical advance in 30 years’, showing how these two negative aspects of the screening (the unexpected laughter, and erroneous speed) were used to promote apparent modern ‘advances’. Whilst the aim of the screening was to appreciatethe film for its historical and cinematic importance, it was used instead to show how far technology has developed in the time since its original release.

The screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari highlights a dislocation between what The Film Society thought audiences should see and what the citizens of St. Andrews wanted to see. Looking back at the screening now, we can see a society trying to educate audiences in the canonical titles of film history, and whilst this may not have always been successful, we can appreciate the efforts to find a space in the town to view and study film not only as entertainment but also as an art form.


Lyndsay Townsend (2018)


Works Cited:

St. Andrews Citizen, February 19, 1949.

St. Andrews Citizen, March 12, 1949.