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Wow! We expect to be pleasantly surprised when the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung releases a new restoration of a classic German film. Every new offering replaces a murky old copy with a more complete, better-looking version with more accurate inter-titles: Die Nibelungen, Faust, Metropolis. Kino Classics' new Blu-ray of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is from the same source as last month's Region B Masters of Cinema release, with different extras. The word has already been circulating that this Caligari is a revelation and I can happily report that the improvement over old copies isn't exaggerated. Compared to this, Kino's older release from 2002 might as well be a bad Xerox copy. As it runs at the correct speed, this version even makes the acting look more sensitive and natural.
The deceptively straightforward story is set in the hamlet of Holstenwall. A sinister mountebank called Dr. Caligari obtains permission to exhibit his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) at a fun fair. Artists and poets Francis and Alan (Friedrich Feh´her & Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend, and watch Caligari exhibit the zombie-like sleeping Cesare in an upright box resembling a coffin. Cesare tells Alan that he won't live until dawn. Sure enough, Alan is stabbed to death in his bed, as others have been recently. Francis tells his sweetheart Jane (Lil Dagover) about the murder and engages a doctor to investigate if the weird Cesare could be the killer. Jane visits the fair to look for Francis and finds her way to Caligari's show tent. Will she be the Doctor's next victim?
One doesn't need to look far to read about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; it's a prime exhibit for any study of German cinema or movie history in general. Major treatises have been written about it. The Decla Company's designers were set loose making 'insane' scenery to represent the world of an insane narrator. Fritz Lang could not get himself assigned to the film but is said to have been in on the decision to add a 'sane' framing story, to better contrast with the 'insane' main narrative.
The movie has no discussion of psychology or Freud yet is strikingly complex. That most of the narrative is perceived as the warped vision of a disturbed man makes complete sense of the strange visuals and weird characters. Authors Mayer and Janowitz go beyond the surprise twist of Poe's short story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather. The murder scenario is a delusion, and then Francis's investigation is a second delusion. Buried within that fantasy is the idea that a good doctor can 'will' himself to be possessed by a madman he has read about: "You Must Become Caligari". Francis imagines the kindly asylum director taken over by a maniac, almost like Guy de Maupassant's The Horla.
Flashbacks and games with time structures were already common in films, but Caligari uses a flashback as an, 'altered reality'. We know something's strange because everything looks like stage scenery painted by an Expressionist artist. The world is fragmented, splintered, twisted; there are no straight lines and the law of perspective has been repealed. Despite the theatrical effect we even now readily accept the conventions. This kind of stylization has been back in vogue for years, largely divorced from its original meanings. Woody Allen tried to recreate it with mixed results. The letter and some of the spirit of the style persists in the films of Tim Burton, but its flavor has always been around in horror films and noirs, and the occasional movie with sideways artistic ambitions -- Night of the Hunter, Track of the Cat, "The Lullaby of Broadway" musical number in The Gold Diggers of 1935.
Along with The Golem, Cabinet's Cesare is a filmic precursor for every humanoid movie monster we've got. Cesare is the zombie, the ghoul, the animated corpse -- but also a victimized human in a trance, living a nightmare of his own. If Caligari chose to peek into Cesare's mind, what would its scenery then look like? Cesare is the real soul of the film, the monster the falls in love with his appointed victim and dies trying to carry her away. But since Cesare is really an invention of Francis' dirty little mind, does it mean that Francis wants to carry Jane away as well? Francis has quite an imagination. He thinks one fellow patient is a killer, another a queen and the director a murderous puppet master. A question -- did the gentle, frightened Alan really exist? Or is he a part of Francis's fractured personality as well?
The still insightful Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror raises questions about Caligari's 'meaning' in relationship to World War One. Francis represents art and freedom and liberalism, and Caligari and his asylum are the traditionally regimented German society. In Hardy's view Francis's unmasking of the fake authority figure corresponds to the revelation that the Germany's militaristic ambitions were a fraud, proved by the catastrophe of WW1. But the subsequent narrative twist returns the reactionary establishment to power once again. The authoritarians will arrest and cure those wild artists and radicals, and return the country to a sane path. Of course, the 'benevolent' Caligari gives the camera one last, rather unsettling, stare during the final iris-out. I include this just to show that politically bent art critics are not a new development.
Want more discussion of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and high art? Critic David Kalat knows his European art movements, even if he concocts frighteningly cringe-worthy titles: Caligari Glen Ross (Expressionism is for Closers).
The packaging text for Caligari is crowded with a forest of sponsors, producers, restoration film sources. It wasn't immediately apparent where the main music score comes from; two institute-entities in Freiburg are listed. The main music score is very effective, by the way, an excellent accompaniment for Caligari's visionary plunge into expressionist psychosis.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a quantum improvement over anything else we've seen. It can't look as if it were filmed yesterday, but it comes much closer than one might think possible. As explained in the film's prologue, an original negative (!) was accessed for restoration, with the exception of the first reel, the inter-titles and a shot or two here and there. The first reel actually looks quite good. When the prime materials pop in, Caligari is transformed. We can see much more detail in the theatrical makeups, with the effect that the characters now seem like painted works of art. The scenery resembles charcoal drawings folded into shapes like origami. Where before blacks were clogged with contrast, we can now see light smudges on Cesare's sleeves. Lil Dagover's appearance is softer, slightly more natural.
A restoration comparison shows that quite a bit of dirt and damage had to be cleaned up. There is no longer a dark line marring the top of many images. This version also seems to reveal more of the original film frame. In the scene at the bridge, the top seems only a little tight, rather than chopped off. The biggest improvement comes from making the image steady in the frame. Because all of the shots are locked down, the constant riding of the image spoiled the film's feeling of stasis. Now the various settings look more like solid spaces. 1
The best negative copies found did not have original German inter-titles, so these were cleaned up from existing copies. Each is a unique piece of artwork in itself, so it's right that they were retained, and English subtitles (removable) put in place.
The insert booklet offers an insightful essay by Kristin Thompson. The main video extra is the 52-minute documentary Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema by Rüdiger Suchland. It could well be titled, 'Everything You Need to Know about German Expressionism'. Using excellent film clips and historical newsreels, Suchland defines Expressionism as an art-movement revolt against the forces of conservative order. By the time Expressionism was applied to film, painting had already moved on to different schools of thought, and '20s German film slowly gave way back to realism. The film clips perfectly complement what's being explained, establishing relationships between cinema, art movements and political history. We also get a full explanation of the film's advertising slogan, "You Must Become Caligari!" It echoes with the mysterious questions posed to create excitement for Feuillade's Les Vampires ("Qui? Quoi? Quand? Ou...") and Lang's Dr. Mabuse ("Who is behind these crimes?").
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Blu-ray rates:
1. The static nature of the movie must have made the encoding a cinch: if most of the film frame stays the same, fewer bits are needed to refresh the image. In 2005, some enterprising filmmakers were able to remake Caligari by matting their own actors into the same frozen images.
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T'was Ever Thus.