Too often hidden from view from audiences accustomed to the effortless digital realities of modern cinema where anything that can be imagined can be depicted it’s easy to dismiss the power of early silent cinema, yet working without the benefit of any of the technologies or processes which now exist, as primitive as it might seem in some aspects the challenge and achievement are in fact all the greater.
Originally released in 1920 and now available as a stunning high definition restoration from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) is rightly regarded as one of the defining works of the German expressionist cinema movement, yet beneath the distorted, angular visuals and the often tortured performances there is a consciously oblique and misleading story which continues to echo across genres.
A game of distraction from the beginning, it opens in a garden as an elderly man complains to the gentleman who sits beside him that “spirits surround us on every side, they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child,” but the younger man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), counters that he can tell of a more terrible ordeal endured by he and his bride Jane (Lil Dagover), who with ethereal demeanour drifts through the garden dressed in a white shift.
In his hometown of Holstenwall, Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) had attended a travelling fair where they witnessed the performance of the eponymous Doctor Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his “assistant” Cesare (Casablanca’s Conrad Veidt), a “somnambulist” whom Caligari claims has slept continuously for twenty three years but whom the Doctor is able to raise in a trance like state during which he is able to answer questions from the audience.
Asking Cesare how long he will live, Alan is told “until dawn,” and the next morning Francis is awoken by his landlady with the news that his friend was killed during the night, the second such murder in two days. Alan, Jane and her father Doctor Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger) petition the police to investigate Caligari but they have apprehended another suspect (Metropolis‘ Rudolf Klein-Rogge), forcing Alan to continue his observations of Caligari unaided, but nothing is as it seems.
Now almost a century old, the print has been extensively restored from a variety of sources by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, the astonishing work which was undertaken is demonstrated in an isolated clip which is shown in the transition phases and then compared with the result of an earlier restoration and the current high definition version now released by Eureka.
Unlike some films of the silent era, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari is not theatrically overplayed though stagecraft is evident in the production. The cast drawn from experienced players, many of whom enjoyed long and successful careers, Werner Krauss in particular received many awards for his acting through his life. Instead, unable to communicate through spoken dialogue and with the intertitles kept to the barest minimum, it is through posture, movement and expression that the actors make themselves understood.
Through the direction of Robert Wiene and the design of Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, the skewed world in which they exist has been created, a descent into the madness of distorted landscapes and twisted perspectives, buildings of skewed shape and proportion, grotesque caricatures and shadows of murderous intent, it is the fantastical and disturbing imagery which made the film’s reputation and it was hugely influential both within Germany and internationally.
Regarded as one of the earliest horror films, visually it directly prefigures F W Murnau’s Nosferatu and James Whales’ Frankenstein and the accompanying documentary Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War is a fascinating celebration of early German cinema which examines the context of the creation of the film in the turmoil of the Wiemar Republic.
The aftermath and reparations of the Great War leading to a political and social restructuring of Germany, it was a stratified, increasingly mechanised and pro-military regime whose bluster sought to cover the disillusionment of defeat, and cinema was a natural outlet for the aspirations and frustrations of that generation which allowed them to escape from the broken reality of their world through increasingly ambitious visions.
Included on the second disc is the feature length From Caligari to Hitler which covers much of the same ground in more depth, including the work of, among others, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and F W Murnau with glorious footage which encourages further exploration of the whole movement, though it lacks the focus of the shorter documentary, trying to squeeze in too much where a more judicious use of clips and closer attention to the political context would be more effective.
The most interesting of the accompanying features is You Must Become Caligari, a speculative criticism by the David Cairns which opens with apocryphal but entertaining stories of the creation of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari which he rapidly discredits before pointing out the oddities and ambiguities of the film which are more easily explainable when viewed not through the projector lens, but through the eyes of madness.