Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Cert U)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 77 minutes approx.
Heralded as the epitome of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential silent horror films of all time Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is given a new lease of life thanks to this stunningly impressive 4K restoration by F.W. Murnau-Stiftung group, the official preservationists of German cinema, and brought to us by those wonderful folk at Eureka!
Robert Weine’s seminal work may date back to 1920 but it is still a title which is quick on the lips of any film historian or connoisseur of the moving image when it comes to discussing the power of the visual medium. Caligari’s legendary mise-en-scene of angular sets, esoteric designs and use of shadows remains as vibrant as ever in creating the nightmare in which this curious story unfolds.
The plot is straightforward – a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) shows up in the small town of Holstenwell with an attraction for the local fair – a somnambulist named Ceasrè (Conrad Veidt) who has been in a deep sleep for twenty three years. Caligari wakes Ceasrè up and tells the crowd he can foretell the future. A man Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) asks how long he has to live. Ceasrè tells Alan he’ll be dead by dawn. The next morning Alan is found murdered – the second grisly murder to occur since the arrival of Caligari.
Originally turned down by a too busy Fritz Lang, Weine introduces a new narrative device for Caligari – the flashback tale. The film actually opens with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher) recounting the tale to a friend; but Weine isn’t done yet as the denouement brings with it a huge twist that turns the entire story on its head. Audiences in 1920 must have been confused by this unusual approach but it still has the power to catch the viewer out even today, due in part to the subtlety of its application.
The script by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer was inspired by two separate incidents – the first the murder of a young woman by a respected military psychiatrist, the second revolving around a hypnotist’s stage show. Combining the two allows Caligari to explore both the treatment of the ill by those who are clearly ill themselves, succumbing to the darker side of the human psyche.
Somnambulism may not be a mental illness per se but it does put Ceasrè in a position where Caligari can manipulate him through hypnotism to carry out his murderous deeds. When surely a man with such a condition needs help we have to question the mindset of his fellow human being wiling to exploit it for his own gain. Caligari’s motives are never explained save for a morbid curiosity with an old fable, making Ceasrè a sympathetic pawn in his game.
As much as the garish and surreal set pieces remain a talking point regarding the film’s unique aesthetic, a vital component is Ceasrè himself. With his white face, heavy black eye make-up and clad in black attire, Ceasrè cuts an eerie figure before he has awoken. This scene alone is a highly recognisable one as Conrad Veidt’s wide eyed debut is nuanced with a childlike wonder and a tacit pain from his years in slumber.
Similarly the sight of Ceasrè making his way through the haphazard pathways with Alan’s fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover), the intended victim he can’t bring himself to kill, in his arms is rather poetic; our “monster” has found his heart but cannot express himself in any coherent manner other than of the simplistic savage he has been turned into. With the flowing white gown of the unconscious Jane clashing with Ceasrè’s thin black form, the template has been set for every bittersweet meeting between beauty and beast from here to eternity.
Very much a product of its time the acting can be a bit hammy but this is easily forgiven since the cast very capably tell the story through their body language keeping the intertitles largely for necessity only. Werner Krauss was the star of the time and naturally his name is the one with top billing, creating a devious and menacing character in the titular Dr. Caligari through both subtlety and acutely observed mannerism.
However it would be the then relatively unknown Conrad Veidt who would benefit the most from this film, seeing his stock quickly rising before a successful transition to Hollywood at the end of the decade until his passing. While many will know him from his penultimate film Casablanca, for many Ceasrè is his defining role.
As if to disprove the theory that you can’t make a silk purse from a cow’s ear, Caligari was hit by budgetary restrictions hence the painted sets and back screens replacing fully built stages. The stunning effect of light and shade was also due to the parsimony of the lighting costs but Weine and his crew were able to use this to their advantage in creating an effectively sinister atmosphere and a veneer which went on to influence everything from horror to film noir.
And so to the transfer. FWMS have excelled themselves with this restoration especially taking into account that many frames were missing or badly damaged causing the whole first act to be completely reconstructed from various sources. Aside from a few understandable blips and lines from a 94 year old print the images as crisp and clean as they were back in 1920. The sharpness of the images and the detail is extraordinary and at times you would question the age of the film. Absolutely stunning.
With its classic status and place in film history already cemented recommending Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari requires no argument and this superb High Definition reissue simply reinforces that with bells on!
New 1080p presentation in original 1:33:1 aspect ratio
Original German intertitles with English Subtitles
Stereo & 5.1 Surround scores
Audio Commentary with David Kalat
Caligari: The Birth Of Horror In The First World War
You Must Become Caligari
On The Restoration
Rating – *****
Man In Black