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Director: Robert Wiene
Writer: Carl Meyer, Hans Janowitz
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Length: 77 min.
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: November 18, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: LPCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- Booklet Essay by Kristin Thompson
- Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema (Documentary, 52 minutes)
- Image Gallery
- Restoration Demonstration
When one is tasked with writing on a film about that practically everything has already been said, they run the risk of becoming another mumbler in the critical echo chamber. However, while the film has been been discussed incessantly since its release, it is a testament to its value that discussion can still be had. As many of this our readers will know, Caligari is widely regarded as the first ‘true’ horror film in motion picture history, Nosferatu released two years later in 1922. Now nearly a hundred years old, the film stands out as one of the most iconic examples of interwar German Expressionism, second only, perhaps, to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The story centers on Francis and his fiancée Jane as they cross paths with the mysterious Dr. Caligari, an itinerant carnie hoping to setup a bizarre sideshow at the Holstenwall fair, wherein he hypnotically controls the raccoon-eyed somnambulist Cesare. Caligari keeps Ceaser under a state of near-continuous sleep, essentially transforming Cesare into an automaton. Caligari boasts to his audience that under his influence, Cesare can prophesy the future – a boast that proves true when Francis’s friend Alan is told he will die by dawn, and is subsequently murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Besides being an early example of horror, Caligari also innovates in other areas as well. The film is a notable for its pioneering use of the framed story; the main plot is recounted by Francis to an old man after the fact. The film’s twist ending also set a precedent for countless horror films to come, and its influence can be felt in stories as different as The Sixth Sense to Saw. Most memorable, though, is the films evocative and moody use of jagged, dreamlike sets as well as the play of light and dark, at times making the picture seem like some nightmare collaboration of Marc Chagall and E. Elias Merhige.
Looking back on Caligari in the wake of its latest restoration and release, it is remarkable that an experimental, silent film still has the power to fascinate so many. One must wonder, though, about the artistic and psychological maelstrom that produced such a film. Filmed just a year after the close of the Great War from a screenplay written by two young vets, the film might be seen as a reflection of the unease and lack of certainty experienced in a newly democratic, recently-neutered Germany.
Indeed, it is striking to consider that all of the three most memorable, imaginative films from interwar Germany have, as a central device, the dominant/submissive relationship between a maleficent genius and an ensorcelled subordinate: Caligari and Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Count Orlok and Knock in Nosferatu, and Rotwang and Maria in Metropolis. For a nation that would spend the next dozen years adrift in a sea of hedonistic “So what?” one could venture to say that the trope proved an unintentional prophecy of Germany’s future, where the ultimate Caligari would hypnotize his people in a frenzy of blood, bombs and mayhem.
For this release, Kino Lorber uses the same restoration used by Eureka Masters of Cinema for their UK release. The new 4k restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, partially from the original camera negative, is a minor miracle. Considering the patchwork reconstruction that this film underwent, the final result looks remarkably consistent—so much so, that it’s almost impossible to believe that the film was assembled from multiple sources. According to the text preceding the start of the film, the first reel of the camera negative is missing, and there is no original German release print in existence. Various prints had to be gathered to assemble the final product. The resulting image quality makes the film come alive in a totally new way for a modern audience. In every way imaginable, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari now looks better than it ever has before, and probably ever will.
Both the Music: LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD 5.1 audio tracks consist of a newly recorded and highly atmospheric chamber piece, with each instrument allowed to demonstrate its own unique character, rather then sounding homogenized. The music sounds very much of the period, (The Second Viennese School, to be precise), and is in perfect keeping with the atmosphere of the film. On this release, Kino Lorber also includes a second soundtrack, recorded by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky). To my ears, this sounds far less successful than the main track, as it completely takes us out of the Expressionist period and into modern day, new-agey horror music.
Kino Lorber provides us with one extraordinary extra feature on this release—which is also included on the Eureka release—a 52-minute, 2014 documentary, Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War, by Rüdiger Suchsland, which takes us through evolution of German Expressionist Cinema within the larger context of German culture of the Wiemar Republic, the eventual rise of Hitler, and the incredible influence of Dr Caligari on German cinema. Other extras includes a booklet essay by Kristin Thompson, and a Restoration Demonstration video.
Caligari is a true classic, and Kino Lorber’s US release makes it more enjoyable to watch than ever before. The amount of work that went into the restoration alone is impressive unto itself. As with their prior release of Metropolis and Nosferatu, Kino’s release breathes new life into Calargi. Sure, you can catch the aforementioned films, including Calargi via various services (and often for free), but you won’t get a chance to experience the film in the same manner. This is as close as you are going to get to seeing this film projected in 35mm. It is an essential piece of horror history, and it remains one of the most beautiful films to ever be released.