The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of those films that even non-film lovers have either seen or know about. And if you’ve had a film class, any film class, you’ll invariably cover the expressionist period, and its influence on Hollywood and film noir. Caligari itself was so influential that it helped break the ban on German films across most of the globe, “unofficially” instated after the First World War. Films from Nosferatu and Frankenstein, all the way to Tim Burton’s predilection with the Goth “look,” owe a debt to Caligari.
The 2014 restoration, and the film’s release through Kino Lorber’s Kino Classic’s label, makes it necessary for a re-introduction and a cause for celebration. Painstaking detailed work went into not just cleaning up and stabilizing the image, but re-tinting the frames as they were originally intended. As well, two new soundtracks have been recorded and added; the main by Freiburg’s Studio for Film Music, the second, a far superior score by DJ Spooky, which jettisons much of the standard clichés of silent film orchestrations with beats and grooves that give the film a fresh, vibrant and still frightening allure.
With the new restoration, the crisp images and sharp angles become all the more dramatic, making the whole film vastly more compelling than you’ll remember from film school. As well, its dreamlike quality is now so palpable with a stabilized image, that the viewer feels as if trapped in a slow-moving nightmare just like the sleep-walking prisoner, Cesare.
The story begins as two men discuss a woman who walks past them in a dreamlike state. Francis, the younger of the two, remarks that she is his fiancé. He tells a story of himself and his friend, Alan, who happen to visit a carnival and are convinced to enter a sideshow tent where a Dr. Caligari brings about a somnambulist, who he can awaken long enough to answer any questions about the past and future. Alan asks how long he will live, and Cesare answers, “…until dawn.” Frightened, the two men flee, but Caligari makes sure Caseare is correct, and Alan is found stabbed the next morning. Both Francis and Alan were in love with the same girl, Jane. Upon hearing of Alan’s death, Francis and Jane determine to find his killer. Soon Caligari is sending the sleep-walking Cesare to kill Jane, but he is so taken with her beauty he cannot bring himself to it, and instead, carries her off. A mob chases him down, and he leaves Jane behind, finally falling to his death.
There’s greater mystery ahead, and for the very few who haven’t seen Caligari, there will be no spoilers here – just a promise of a surprising finish that some have dubbed the very first “twist ending.” Whether that’s even true, we can leave it to the lore of Caligari, including the rumor that the great Fritz Lang was originally supposed to direct, but little evidence exists to support that claim. The man who did end up directing Caligari, Robert Wiene, was a great artist in his own right.
The expressionist movement in Germany seen in art and theatre as far back as the 1910s, was considered revolutionary in its embodiment of not just light and shadow, but its physicalization of the depression and misery the country was feeling in the throws of a depression following World War I. Part of this movement was an emphasis on collaboration. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was no exception. Producer Erich Pommer brought designer Hermann Warm together with painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig to design the sets and wardrobe. Working with director Wiene, they created a nightmare with painted canvases for backdrops and dramatically skewed building interiors and exteriors, and off kilter, angled sets that give no relief, so that the nightmare is tangible and textual. Characters climb intricate stairways with jangled bannisters, and pathways that seem to recede in the distant are actually a literal forced perspective. Even by 1920s standards, the make-up is purposefully over-exaggerated, and the acting, demonstrative and melodramatic. All of these elements play into the finished product, a psychological exercise in claustrophobia and tension.
So successful was Caligari that director Wiene tried to recreate its success by making Genuine (1922), but its confusing plot and obvious “lifting” from its predecessor made it a box-office failure. Still, Weine made films all the way until his death in 1938, after he fled Nazi German for France.
Kino Classics Blu-ray also includes the documentary Caligari: How Horror Came to Cinema, which offers historical context to the film in an exhaustive timeline of Germany’s economic and political place in the world theatre. Along with a trailer, the Blu-ray also includes some before and after scenes of the restoration, which highlights the tedious work done in order to make this release so successful.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may not be the first horror film, as many have thought (The Golem from 1915, and Frankenstein’s first film incarnation in 1910 are just two examples) but it definitely set the tone and style for horror, and noir. And whether or not you’ve experienced Caligari before, you owe it to yourself to return to the Doctor’s “cabinet,” and see if he can still cast a spell upon your waking “sleep.”