Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This new 2005 version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a scene-for scene re-enactment of the 1919 Decla-Bioscop German classic, using digital compositing methods to combine new image elements with backgrounds from the original film. As with Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho, which copied Alfred Hitchcock's original almost shot for shot, this new Caligari raises a number of questions about the wisdom of reconstituting a classic so closely. Is this an homage, or something more akin to plagiarism?
The plot is a near-exact recreation of Hans Janowitz and Karl Mayer's original 1919 screen story: Two friends, Francis (Judson Pierce Morgan) and Alan (Neil Hopkins) attend the fair and witness the display of Cesare (Doug Jones), a somnambulist, by his weird mountebank keeper, Dr. Caligari (Daamen J. Krall). Cesare predicts Alan's death, and when the young man is found strangled Francis tries to alert the authorities. They are satisfied when a likely criminal (Scott Lincoln) is railroaded for the crime, but Francis still suspects Caligari. Then Cesare stalks the rooftops toward the rooms of Francis' girlfriend, Jane (Lauren Birkell) ...
Remakes of well-received films have become increasingly popular with the studios, to the point that it is probably easier to green-light a remake of a half-forgotten title like The Flight of the Phoenix, than it is to sell a new story about men lost in the desert. The updating is usually not for the better and can be as superficial as adding female and minority characters to the cast. The copycat remake of Psycho attracted general scorn for practically stenciling out a copy of Hitchcock's classic. It's a sure bet that the film eventually made money. Hey -- it was in color.
New technology makes it possible to manipulate images in just about any way that the mind can imagine. If iso desired, stars like Fred Astaire and John Wayne can be lifted from old movies, colorized and made to hawk products in TV commercials. A general aesthetic uproar went up when Ted Turner began colorizing old movies in the early 1980s, but the practice persists on the principle that audiences just don't want to watch B&W. Since Turner owned his library outright, it's altogether possible that he could alter 'his property' in any way he desired, as George Lucas routinely does. If he so desired, Turner could eliminate the Paul Henreid performance in Casablanca and with the help of green-screen experts play the part himself. Jane Fonda could have been substituted for Ingrid Bergman.
A couple of years ago Columbia set a precedent with the 40 year-old Major Dundee : The film's original score was replaced with a new composition by a new composer. The original is still available, but will the altered version eventually become the standard?
If the Big Boys can play around with film history with impunity, one can't immediately pounce on ambitious independents. Filmmaker David Lee Fisher built his Caligari re-think around the (presumably) public domain German silent, using ingenious means to make a reasonably faithful talkie version. It's still in B&W but has been reformatted for widescreen. The story un-spools the same way, but instead of retaining the original's unbroken, static master scenes, Fisher has added new two-shot and single coverage to handle new dialogue extrapolated from the old original inter-titles.
The costumes by Paula Elins are excellent, nicely evoking the arcane originals. Director Robert Weine's original costumes were as stiff and artificial as the stylized backgrounds, but Elins finds a good middle ground. The same goes for the makeup on the well-cast leads. Judson Pierce Morgan is given just enough dark eye shadow to give Francis an appropriately spooky Tim Burton look. Leading lady Lauren Birkell is painted to follow more of a generic Carol Borland look, and is less interesting. Actor Daamen J. Krall comes up with the best character interpretation as Caligari. Werner Krauss's original heavy makeup, with big triangles on his cheeks, is toned down considerably; Krall compensates with his mad-doctor line readings. The only character to miss the mark is the actor playing Cesare, the somnambulist. He's painted almost identically to Conrad Veidt's original and goes through the motions, but an 'approximation' won't do. There's no replacing Veidt's haunted look of love-struck madness, hauling Jane away into the night before expiring from exhaustion. Frankly, the new Cesare reminds me a bit of Maggie Smith in whiteface. It's not the actor's fault ... Cesare needs a powerhouse like Veidt or a Lon Chaney to really work.
The film's most publicized trick is its re-use of the 1919 film's actual set designs. As most of the scenes in Wiene's film are shown from only one or two angles, frames from the original were extracted and cleaned up (liberally re-painted, most likely) and then used as backgrounds for new action recorded on a green screen stage. Certain props and wall pieces were built full-scale, but fewer than one would think. When Alan sits on a sofa, he's actually sitting on a green box in a green void, as the sofa is part of the 1919 background artwork. Perhaps video experts would be more critical -- I see some imperfect mattes here and there -- yet for the most part the blending of old backgrounds with new actors works extremely well.
The new version has been called a "remix" in the same way that older hit recordings have been re-orchestrated with new rhythms and vocals. "Remix" not only sounds hip but it makes the alterations seem legit, as if it's unreasonable to protest the rebirth of an old movie in a new presentation. Who wants to watch a flickery, fuzzy relic with bad contrast and clumsy inter-titles? The new version has a velvety-smooth visual surface and more accessible performances. It can even be said that the new filmmakers accomplish good approximations of some aspects of the old film. The purposely-stilted speeches work quite well, and the direction of the extra angles to accommodate them is not distracting. The makeup and acting are good, and the music score also helps put us in the right frame of mind.
Yet the new Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a precocious stunt film, something that horror fans might want to check out but don't really need. Everything "good" about the movie points back to its model, the 1919 film that now seems more revolutionary than ever, with its convoluted, Freud-inspired storyline. Our eyes immediately go to details that don't match the original, as the new film cannot establish a "life" of its own. Cesare's eyes no longer snap awake, a haunting detail of Conrad Veidt's mime. When the new Cesare skulks down a crooked wall, he doesn't seem to be in contact with it -- the clever digital shadow tricks don't work in that particular shot. One of the most beautiful images in the original occurred when Cesare dragged the unconscious Jane from her bed. The bedpost veil came as well, giving Jane the appearance of pulling a beautiful, ghostly bridal veil behind her. In the new version there is no veil because it is part of the static matted background.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari "remix" is certainly reverential to the original, but its dialogue distracts from the silent movie's emphasis on stark visuals. The films' original set of plot reversals are there, but they don't seem as powerful. In this case, the original film is in no danger of being supplanted -- the legacies of Conrad Veidt and Co. assure that that won't happen -- but the final effect is confusion. One thinks of the 1984 "disco" version of Metropolis: the Remix is simply unnecessary. The first thing one wants to do is go back and see the original, real movie created by brilliant minds, the one that ushered movies into new possibilities of psychological complexity.
Image's DVD of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a beauty. The stylish, Tim Burton-ish film is rendered in silky B&W and is enhanced for widescreen. The stereo audio is very smoothly mixed and mastered. The featurette A Cabinet Reopened shows in detail the film's interesting green-screen production process and the relatively young group of talents that made it. As in a promotional piece, the interviews hype the film's accomplishment shamelessly: "It's like the old movie but it has an edge. You can relate to it, like, now." It seems an unwise publicity choice for a director making his first feature to be lauded as if he were a filmic genius.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (2005) rates:
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Featurette A Cabinet Reopened; still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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