Adelaide Fringe 2020: Ashley Hribar plays Dr Caligari: musical rebirth of a silent film legend

Dr Caligari performed by Werner Krauss

Who: Ashley Hribar

Where: Mercury Cinema

When: Until 28 Feb

Tickets: $30, here

If you’ve ever studied film, you may have encountered the 1920 German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – a spooky film about a series of mysterious crimes taking place in a bizarre, off-kilter world. For the 100th anniversary of the silent film’s release, the brilliant Australian pianist Ashley Hribar has composed a new live score to be performed alongside screenings of the film. If you’ve ever been curious about the century-old practice of seeing a silent film in a cinema accompanied by a live musician, Hribar has given us a very cool opportunity to experience an updated version of this practice for the 21st century.

For those unfamiliar with the film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari follows our hero Francis, a young man who is determined to uncover the truth behind the murders and kidnappings happening in his town. He is convinced that the sinister hypnotist Dr Caligari is the culprit, commanding his waifish somnambulist Cesare to commit crimes on his behalf. However, things are never quite what they seem, and we begin to question the sanity of all involved as the mystery deepens. Caligari is set in a surreal dreamscape of impossible architecture and twisted, angular shapes, a fascinating visual style considered the apex of German Expressionism in film.

Ashley Hribar

Hribar’s new original score for the film is frankly breathtaking. His virtuosic live piano performance is the core of the soundtrack, but he multitasks on synthesisers and percussion to create a layered and complex musical performance. Stunning Romantic arpeggios and haunting melodies echo from Hribar’s piano, drawing the viewer deeply into the dark and fascinating world of Caligari. Jaunty jazz tunes accompany the town fair scenes, but pounding bassy synths and eerie electronic sounds emerge during scenes of mystery and murder. It’s truly impressive to watch Hribar play intricate piano parts with one hand and handle a variety of percussive instruments with the other.

The music was so carefully composed and well-timed that it often felt like it emerged from deep within the nightmarish psychological landscape of the film itself. However, I was a little unsure about the addition of diegetic sound (chattering crowds, footsteps, birds chirping, and so on) – it seemed to contradict oddly with the conventions of a ‘silent film’. I personally found it little out of place, but I have no doubt others would have appreciated the added immersion.

I’ve seen quite a number of film screenings with live musical performances, and the issue I always have with them is that I never quite know whether to focus my attention on the musicians or the movie. It’s too easy to get caught up in the action on the screen and forget to admire the musician’s work, and vice-versa. I still felt that way here, but since I have seen the film several times before, I felt a little freer to focus on Hribar’s outstanding performance.

If the idea of sitting through a silent film or a piano recital sounds incredibly boring to you, probably give this one a miss. However, if you appreciate film history, creepy German aesthetics, and/or excellent live instrumental music, this show is definitely worth seeing. Hribar’s soundtrack is so captivating that I truly hope the film is released with a recording of this new, mesmerising score.

4/5 stars

–Tamika Glouftsis

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