The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Review

Sitting on a garden bench, Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells an elderly man seated next to him a story from when he lived in Holstenwall...

A travelling fair has opened and Francis persuades his best friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) to go with him. Meanwhile Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), new in town asks one of the clerks to grant him a licence to perform his act, only to be laughed at and thrown out - resulting in the said clerk to be found murdered the next day. That following day, Dr. Caligari presents his show and the star - Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who awakens from his slumber. Alan curiously approaches Cesare and asks him "How long will I live for?" to which Cesare replies "Until dawn". The next day, Alan is found murdered in his room just like the clerk before him. Francis immediately suspects Caligari to be behind the murders and so enlists the help of his beloved Jane's (Lil Dagover) father, Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger) to diagnose Caligari but he finds nothing wrong and the case is dismissed. Francis continues to watch over Caligari and his sleeping servant, and in a series of twisted events the truth will finally emerge.

To say anymore would be to spoil the film and had this been an essay of the film rather than a review then I would have done just that, for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari needs to be delved into deeper and examined closely because of its intricacies. In keeping with the spirit of providing a review I shall detail my thoughts and hope to offer a few little interesting pieces for you, the reader to enjoy.


Perhaps the most influential film ever made, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been serving audiences worldwide with its surreal, multi-layered tale of suspense and horror for 85 years. Originally premiering in Berlin, 1920, it was lauded for being a truly artistic piece of work, mixing the avant garde, expressionism and a psychological backdrop containing political stabs at Germany's power trip during the First World War (although these political gestures were not actually recognised fully until nearly three decades later). It ultimately went on to experience larger praise throughout the rest of Europe, where it became renowned for being the most important, horrific and controversial film released at the time.

Staged in six acts, writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz had written one of the most original scripts for a silent film. Based around a well known sex/murder case in Hamburg and turning the characters into symbols of the state vs. the people - along with various other influences from their lives - they immediately hit upon an anti-authoritarian commentary, one so well veiled that these metaphors and various subtexts can be easily overlooked in the final product. And it was the introduction of Robert Wiene that initially caused this to happen; the film would lose a little of what Mayer and Janowitz had originally set out to achieve, voicing distaste over Weine's discarding of the framing device they had set up.

The project was offered to Fritz Lang at the time but with prior engagements he was forced to drop out of the production, when Wiene came on board he signaled changes by notably adding the opening and closing sequences that were not originally written. So we can come to understand the true intentions behind the film when watching it, sans prologue and epilogue. Nevertheless, by adding these scenes Robert Wiene succeeded in creating an extra layer; arguably improving the original script as in what he left was one of the first psychological horrors of cinema. But! The set designs alone seemed to suggest enough toward the plot that these additional sequences were perhaps not needed afterall. Had Wiene not contributed these, however, then the film might have been more difficult to interpret as a character study, rather than a statement pitched solely against the German authorities.

Deceptively simple at first glance The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari demands repeat viewings in order to understand the full complexities of the plot.


It's interesting that the film is often touched upon more so for its visual style than it is for its plot but then that would be deservedly so, because it features some of the most visually arresting and alluring set designs of all time. Attributed to the fact that the film was designed to be an expressionistic piece by expressionist artists (Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig) it is masked by surreal and unconventional surroundings: depicting an anti-social and unstable environment that plays a considerably huge role in its overall development. The cubist designs, with their elongated shapes and forced shadows and light lend themselves more as characters with important, paranoiac and disorienting aesthetics than they do simple props. There is nothing simple about the film's look, it is as meticulously pieced together visually as it is written.

It is with its themes of madness, depression, death and so on that the film requires equally substantial performances from its cast. During the silent era many films were acted toward the extreme and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is no exception, but for its share of over-the-top performances it also has some particularly well realised ones, notably subversive efforts from Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt. Veidt plays his part with a great amount of conviction and stoicism for much of the film, later giving in to his character's feelings with a suitably understated performance that makes him one of the most memorable additions to the cast, so too for his haunting appearance. Of further note is the sad nature of Lil Dagover's character as she graces the screen and bleeds it dry with her sullen yet beautiful appearance.


The DVD

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has made many appearances on the DVD format but most have been poor efforts, with the exception of Image Entertainment's offering from 1997. This time Kino Video releases the film in its most complete state yet.

Picture

Restored from a 35mm print by the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv of Germany and presented in its intended colour tinted incarnation the film looks better than ever. The restoration has gone on to even remove the frame line that was present on previous versions, without actually losing any information. Naturally for a film this old not everything is perfect. The image has a lot of specks, scratches and shifting but this is understandable and in no way a major distraction. Due to the age of the materials the film looks less pleasing for its opening shot - the tones are degraded, causing black levels to reveal lighter tints. Thankfully this soon disappears and for the rest of the film's running time (75 minutes in total) the picture looks detailed and sharper, though I wonder if the film is accompanied by edge enhancement? This is harder to acknowledge, simply because the print is so old that it looks as if there is an all round halo effect, although these halos are actually tinted and bleed into the picture. But whatever the case may be it is currently safe to say that this version has not been bettered since in terms of visual quality, and it is in this respect that it gets high marks for the effort put into it.

Kino have also provided all new, scrolling English title cards that do a brilliant job of recreating the German originals, even going so far as to digitally add print damage to fit the rest of the film. This adds greatly to the atmosphere and keeps in tone with the strange quality.

Sound

This release offers two stereo music scores. The first, presented as audio track one is composed and performed by Donald Sosin and is my score of choice for this version. Sosin captures the feel of the film with a more traditional based sound, made up of piano and saxophone amongst others - whereas Rainer Viertblock provides a contemporary piece of a harsher sound, that at times does well to capture the film's disturbing nature but often remains at a difficult level, that saw this reviewer struggling to get to grips with it.

Both scores are composed through synthesizers and while I shrug at the very use of them it can't be helped here and they must be endured. I would recommend the Sosin track if you really want to get a more classical approach.

Extras

Kino has done a good job with providing extras but I would have still liked more. An audio commentary would have been a great addition but failing that we have a nice collection here.

Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire (1920)
While this doesn't have anything to do with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari it is still an important addition and a good companion piece to sit along side it. This is Robert Wiene's feature from the following year, running at 43-minutes it is also currently the most complete version of the film.

The film has Wiene experimenting a little more with photography, this time his use of occasional tracking shots are noted and shows a progression in the year since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The tale shares similarities with his previous film - love, madness and death but unlike "Caligari" the performances are a little more unsettling, meaning less convincing. Fern Andra's performance as Genuine does not have the sinister feel that perhaps she should, although Hans Heinrich von Twardowski's is given more space and a meatier role this time as Florian, where he does a decent job, typically overstated at times but suitably in line with his bizarre appearance. Also notable is the return of the expressionist set designs, that don't quite live up to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's amazement but do lend themselves to serve the story well once more. The story itself is not as interesting as Wiene's previous effort and overall lacks any epic sense.
This film is colour tinted and has English text.

Behind the Scenes with Robert Wiene - On the Set of I.N.R.I.(1923)
This documentary goes behind the scenes of Robert Wiene's production of his religious piece Crown of Thorns, as it is otherwise known. Running for just 2:43mins it offers some interesting moments. We get to see Wiene working behind the camera on shots like "Recreating the birth of Christ" and "Christ's arrival in Jerusalem". The epic scale of the production is evident - a nice addition but once again of no relevance to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Gallery of Photos, Posters, Designs
This is more like it. We have around 40 stills, made up of superb quality black and white photos, sketches for the set designs and posters. These photos bring out much more detail than the finalised film does and it is also quite remarkable how the finished sets end up as perfect replicas of Hermann Warm's designs.

Excerpt with Original German Intertitles
This is a 7-minute clip, featuring the original German, scrolling intertitles. These titles have been recreated perfectly for the Kino release, offering the film with complete authenticity as it requires.


Overall

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film of great importance - A beautiful, haunting masterpiece that has tested time and stood up to this day as still being among the best of its genre. Over the years many have come out to argue its concept - a film that was just an accidental success spurred on by made up stories or a well planned piece of art? Whether its decor or political observations cause more controversy than the other I find that no matter how the film is perceived it is and always will be one of the greatest and most striking productions of all time.

Film
10 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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