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About 20 years ago, a collector found something quite rare at a flea market: a group of 55 photos taken on the set of the seminal 1920 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The well-preserved production stills provide a fascinating document of the Robert Wiene-directed silent movie and its stunningly bizarre sets, which Roger Ebert argued in 2009 can be considered “the first true horror film.”
Two decades after they were found and 100 years after they were taken, the photos are now for sale as part of Sotheby’s spring Photographs auction, which has gone completely online. Bidding ends at 9 a.m. PT on Friday.
“The really amazing thing is that the consigner found this group of 55. Usually you might find one or two of these sorts of things. To find this whole group that really tells the complete arc of the story — that shows different scenes and all the main characters — is really special. Since it was a silent film, the photos in a way can stand in for the filmic experience. You could really lay them out and get a sense of the whole story,” says Kelly Sidley, associate specialist and senior researcher at Sotheby’s. “I love the fact that we’re at the 100th anniversary of the film.”
Shot in 1919 and 1920 entirely inside a studio in a Berlin suburb with no exterior shots, the pic has often garnered spots on lists of the greatest movie of all time. The film, which tells the story of a deranged hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to carry out murders, stood out for its visual style, including the use of hand-painted sets. “The actors inhabit a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives,” wrote Ebert in his 2009 review of the film.
The estimate for the entire lot is $20,000 to $30,000. Not many stills from the movie are known to exist. “Only a few of these images from Dr. Caligari have come up at auction. There was a lot of three of them that sold in 2011 at auction. As a group, they went for about $6,200,” says Sidley.
Each photograph measures approximately 10 x 13 inches. “They are quite large, bigger than a typical contact print that would have been 8 by 10 inches. They are printed on double-weight paper with a beautiful matte surface. They were made with care and there is very precise retouching on many of them to indicate they weren’t mass-produced,” says Sidley. To her, the images still feel “very modern.”
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s visual style, created by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, inspired the look of later important German films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis and M, and is also credited as an inspiration for the look of the genre of film noir.
“You might describe the film as the quintessential expressionist work of German cinema, the first art film to receive worldwide distribution,” says Anthony Slide, author of Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. “Thanks to its U.S. release by Goldwyn, it certainly influenced American filmmaking — although it really took a few years fully to impact. And thanks to one of the classic texts on film history, From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfried Kracauer, it remains as well-known today among anybody involved in film history as it was when first made.” The film is currently available to rent on Amazon and can be viewed as well on the Fandor subscription service.
Other items in the sale include five Annie Leibovitz photos, including shots of Chris Rock; Lauren Hutton; Cindy Crawford; Liberace and Scott Thorson; and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Sidley explains that bidding on the lots in the Photography sale close “in a cascading order, every minute another lot will close.”
However, there’s one important caveat: “If someone bids in the last minute, the lot will then extend for five more minutes and could be extended for up to two hours. That’s the way to make it fair and recognize that people have to react to what’s coming up on the screen or they may be in a place with not the best internet connection. But it can’t go on any longer than two hours after the lot was supposed to close.”
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