Why Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week’ is still fresh 98 years on

On Wednesday 1st September 1920, a significant piece of cinematic history was made. It may not have seemed it at the time, but when ‘One Week’ hit cinemas, the world got its first glimpse of Buster Keaton in a leading role.

Indeed, it wasn’t simply his first starring role. Keaton co-wrote and co-directed the two-reeler as well (with Eddie Cline). Gone was the youthful and playful Keaton viewers had made note of in the earlier Arbuckle comedies, where he was only ever a supporting role. The world was seeing for the first time The Great Stone Face taking centre stage. Deadpan, stoic and always hilarious.

The two-reel film centres around a newly-married couple attempting to setup home over the course of a week. This allowed Keaton and Cline to split the story into seven short segments, with the starts of each marked by the turn of a day calendar.

The feeling one gets when watching is that Keaton had been biding his time with Arbuckle, waiting to star in a film so he could really go to town with his abilities as a physical performer. His abilities are nothing short of acrobatic.

The falling wall gag makes an appearance, less than a year after Arbuckle had done it in ‘Back Stage’ but quite a while before it made a reappearance more famously in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). It’s one of those gasp-out-loud moments in cinema where you know that if something went wrong, he’d be in real trouble.

At one point the entire house is revolving 360 degrees, while a separate shot inside the house had the camera revolving on a turntable as a storm takes hold of the house and its inhabitants. This is Keaton innovating as a filmmaker with the team around him, elevating the film from a simple set of stunts to something more full of ambition, hinting at what cinephiles would enjoy over the next two decades.

A further use of his interest in the mechanical stunt props includes an entire side of the house rotating around a central pivot, with Keaton and Sybil Seely (The Bride) effectively swapping positions between the top and bottom of the house. It’s another gasp-inducing moment, again with little room for error. Keaton’s love for the mechanical stunt grew from his background in vaudeville performance, and viewers would continue to see more of the same in his next short ‘Convict 13’ with an elasticated hanging rope.

I still don’t get how they did all of the stunts, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the film.

‘One Week’ serves as a brilliant starting point for those wanting to get into Keaton’s shorts and feels as fresh today as it must have done in 1920.

So why is it so significant? Well, it was the start of one of the most prolific decades of any one film creator in the history of cinema. It’s incredible to conceive just how much he achieved in what would prove to be the heyday for silent film: 12 feature films and 19 two-reel shorts, all written by, starring and directed by Keaton (albeit some with a co-directing or co-writing credit). It’s similar to the output of The Beatles between 1962 and 1970; prolific and world class. Keaton’s career may have taken a turn for the worse from the start of the 1930s, but by that point his legacy had been realised.

As Orson Welles put it, Buster Keaton was “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema… a supreme artist, and I think one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed.” It’s hard to think of higher praise.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

I finally got around to watching Dr Caligari, having had it near the top of my “to watch” list for around six months. It was a Friday 13th weekend so it was a perfectly timed purchase. Watching it was a fantastic experience and the quality of the film belies its 95-year-old lifespan.

Our story opens with a man’s recounting of a tale about the appearance of a mysterious somnambulist show that is exhibiting at a local fair in Holstenwall, a small town near Hamburg in Germany. The show is compered by the strange Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) with the centrepiece provided by a devastatingly eerie Cesare (a pre-Casablanca Conrad Veidt). When a number of murders are committed, including one predicted by Cesare, the two exhibitors are instantly installed as the prime suspects and panic spreads across the town. [1]

With a narrative as twisted as the set on which it plays out and a plot that throws the viewer off the scent with every turn, the film is way ahead of its time across the board. Indeed, I think the biggest blocker for me guessing what was happening was the fact I underestimated quite how advanced a film released in 1920 could be. It’s probably worth bearing that in mind before watching it.

Actually, this is a fantastic starting point for those wanting to learn more about silent films and German expressionist cinema. This was the birth of the latter, as well as both horror films and twist endings. For this reason, it is wholly a ground-breaking film that needs to be seen to fully understand the landscape of cinema at the time. That’s to disregard the political context too, which the film has been closely linked with being a metaphor for – as a German film released in the aftermath of The Great War this is somewhat inevitable, especially since the two writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janozwicz were both soldiers in this war.

I wouldn’t class myself particularly as a die-hard fan of the silent era, though I have seen a handful of the more prominent pictures (mainly Masters of Cinema releases and Charlie Chaplin’s more famous works). I am slowly getting more and more into it thanks to unrivalled access to the entire history of film via both physical media and digital streaming services. It has never been easier to dip your toes in and see what you enjoy out of a wide variety of films and television series. Couple that with the endless streams of discussion pages, essays and blogs on film and you can really think about it as a very advanced education in cinema.

Dr Caligari is a prime example. The Wikipedia page alone is like a short essay on the development, production, release history and reception of the film, complete with links should you wish to find out more information from the original sources.

The set design is as twisted as the plot itself.

It’s good to take a step back and appreciate exactly how far we have come. I remember my family’s first Windows-based computer [2] – a PC running Windows 95, which was then state of the art. As the internet wasn’t readily available we had two computer-based options to do research: Encarta Encyclopaedia and Microsoft Cinemania. The latter was a bit of a godsend for someone who was interested in cinema, with over 20000 films detailed with stills, sound clips and some even having short video clips. It was rudimentary but quite spectacular. As I was 11 at the time my main priority was watching a short but thrilling clip from Nightmare on Elm Street, so I can’t really remember whether Dr Calgari was covered, though I suspect it was.

Now, though, we can search “Dr Caligari” and retrieve 563,000 results on Google (other search engines are available but they generally aren’t as good). Two of the top results give the ability to stream it for free, with two versions available on YouTube. I just think it’s fascinating we are able to do this now, and even more amazing that we now just take it for granted. Progression, eh?

Well, it doesn’t stop there. The basic picture quality is incomparable to what was readily available some twenty years ago. Back then you had three choices if you wanted to see an older film again: wait for it to be re-released at the cinema, wait for it to come onto television, or buy a VHS copy of it for around £15. This latter one allowed you to access the film much sooner, but the picture quality was just atrocious and really unwatchable by today’s standards. Nowadays, you can pick up a Blu-ray copy of most films for less than £10, often closer £5, and the picture quality is like a dream for cinephiles.

Apologies. I digress. The film itself is pretty mind-blowing. I don’t really know where to start with it, and there has been a great deal written about this film elsewhere by people with much better vocabulary. The bottom line is that I was thoroughly impressed. The twisted design, the tense music (I listened in 5.1), the staccato body movement that gives the acting a really sinister edge, the subversive plot. They all combine to present us with a journey that was way ahead of its time. As the reality behind what I was seeing became clear I was left absolutely gobsmacked by the ending. It’s just a must watch for anyone keen to get to grips with the history of cinema.

Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari is available now on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD.

[1] It’s funny that I’m attempting to not give away any of the plot when describing the film. It seems 95 years isn’t enough time to wait before spoilers are okay. Think about that the next time you want to talk to someone about the next episode of that show you both like but they haven’t seen.

[2] Our first home computer of any kind was the extremely popular Commodore Amiga, which was originally released in 1985. I’m not sure exactly which model we had as it has long since disappeared, though I suspect it was a 500. I don’t recall it ever being used for word processing and it certainly wasn’t connected to the internet, such was life in central Lancashire in the mid-1980s.