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THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski
Director: Robert Wiene
Audio: Dolby Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English intertitles
Video: full-frame, color-tinting
Studio: Image Entertainment
Features: photo gallery, commentary track, short excerpt of "Genuine"
Length: 72 minutes
Release Date: August 14, 2002

"How long do I have to live?"

"Till dawn...tomorrow."

Film ****

Any survey of the most influential silent films of all time must invariably include the 1920 German masterpiece Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (a.k.a. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).  A complex film, and one whose secrets are only revealed after multiple viewings, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the earliest examples of expressionism in world cinema and arguably the most famous one.

The film's main storyline, on initial glance, is a relatively simple one.  In fact, it is narrated almost entirely in flashback by the film's hero, Francis (Feher).  His flashback begins a few years earlier - a carnival has settled upon the outskirts of his German hometown.  One day, a mysterious stranger, dressed in a dark cloak and tall hat, comes to town - he seeks a permit from the town hall to display his exhibit in the carnival.  The old man's name is Dr. Caligari (Krauss), and his exhibit, it turns out, is a wooden cabinet bearing within...a somnambulist named Cesare (Veidt).  The mysterious doctor boldly claims that his sleepwalker has the ability, when awakened, to predict the future.  Francis and his friend decide to attend one of Dr. Caligari's daily shows on the carnival grounds and, hearing the doctor's challenge, ask for a reading.  Cesare is awakened.  He peers into the anticipatory audience and proclaims that one of the two friends will die by sunrise.  This is naturally a very upsetting prediction, and one that is fully realized, to the horror of the surviving friend, Francis.  The disturbing murder, coupled with an earlier unsolved death of a town hall clerk, causes Francis to suspect that perhaps Dr. Caligari and his mysterious somnambulist are somehow linked to the new reign of terror that has settled upon his town.  Fearing for the safety of the heroine, his beloved Jane (Dagover), Francis determines to solve the mystery of his friend's death.  The remainder of the flashback concerns the search for the true identity of the murderer.

As a film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed in several ways.  As a murder mystery, it works surprisingly well and makes for a truly compelling story with its many sub-plots.  A violent man has been captured attempting to kill an old woman; is he the serial murderer?  A shadowy presence stalks the heroine, Jane; is he the murderer?  The prime suspect, Dr. Caligari, despite his ominous appearance, has been under careful surveillance and is clearly not the murderer, either.  As for the prophetic somnambulist, he sleeps constantly, and the mysterious doctor never lies his side.  So, who is the murderer?  The various sub-plots and plot twists are all skillfully inter-woven and will leave the audience in suspense until the very conclusion.

But, certain elements in its design and structure ultimately reveal this film to be more than just a murder mystery.  It can also be viewed as an early horror film (and a psychological one at that).  To better understand the film's true nature, we must be aware of the revolution in contemporary art that was occurring around the time of the film's release.  Experimentation in Dadaism, cubism, and surrealism all emphasized distortions and fragmentation of images.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represented a successful bridge between this art world and that of commercial film.

Many films around the time of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari sought to unfold a story in a realistic, straight-forward manner.  Even the narrative style and editing for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though complex, feels conventional and very contemporary.  But, its dramatic use of abstract imagery and its juxtaposition of darkness and light across the frame's composition introduced a new cinematic language of expression.  In applying many of the theories of modern art to advance its story and to establish the film setting, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped to popularize a new artistic style in cinema - German Expressionism.

German Expressionism was a highly visual and successful experiment in film.  It involved the creation of bold imagery through the contrasting interplay of shadows and light upon a film's sets.  Cinema now had a new thematic language for communicating visions of the mind's eye and its dreamworld as never before.  Films no longer needed to be static and conventional narrations.  They could be fantasies or tales of horror.  Not surprisingly, after the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, German Expressionism's influence could be seen in many subsequent silent films, most famously in Nosferatu or Metropolis. But, it could also be seen in the later sound films as well, such as the Universal horror films of the 1930's or as in the film noir style of the 1940's.  Even the early films of Alfred Hitchcock were heavily indebted to this expressionistic style.

Much has been written about the visual look of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  First of all, there probably is not a single right angle in the entire film.  The town is an artificial patchwork of jagged corners and leaning walls.  Buildings have a decidedly menacing appearance, with angular corridors, unbalanced furniture, and crooked windows all about.  For outdoor scenes, even the backdrop, and sometimes the landscape too, is clearly a surreal painting.  The overall effect is one of a nightmarish world, where reality and fantasy are no longer separated.

The actors' disturbing makeup and costuming only serve to enhance this impression.  For instance, the somnambulist's makeup makes him appear as a flesh-and-bone version of Edward Munch's famous painting The Scream.  Or, like an anemic, gaunt version of a contemporary, off-the-wall pop singer.  The heroine's initial appearance is an unsettling one - as though in a trance, she wanders among the skeletal branches of trees like an apparition.  Dr. Caligari, with his painted gloves and ominous cape, almost seems to foreshadow famous creatures of the later horror films, such as the Phantom of the Opera or Dracula.  These are not the faces of a normal world.  Instead, they are inhabitants of a netherworld in which, as one character puts it, "there are spirits everywhere...they are all around us."

On an interesting side note, the look of the film was not entirely voluntary.  There was not enough financial support during production to afford naturalistic sets.  As a compromise, a more theatrical, abstract approach was utilized for the set design.  The end result is one of those fortunate accidents of cinema that works brilliantly.  This avant-garde design in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be said to have created a visionary, new vocabulary for the horror genre, one that persists even today in modern films.

Any film that can still retain its visual power after eighty years is rare indeed and not to be missed.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film for the ages!

Video **

The film is extremely old, so expect the usual amount of scratches, frame skips or jumps, dust marks, and minimal degradation.   Still, as far as silent films go, this is an excellent print, with generally good clarity of detail and contrast.  In addition, this particular print has been color-tinted, a processing technique that helps to enhance the impact of various scenes.  The hand-drawn English intertitles reproduce the sharp, angular appearance of the original German intertitles.  The best news, however, is that the film has been mastered at its proper projection speed of 18 frames per second, so all movements in the film are quite fluid and natural in appearance.  Thank the lucky stars!

On the other hand, something which may irritate a few viewers is the presence of a fairly persistent translucent-black bar at the top of the frame.  This bar is not due to poor mastering but is rather a "flaw" inherent to the source reels themselves (a Russian 35mm print).  Silent films were not always uniform in the manner by which the frames were printed onto reels.  An irregular alignment of the frame, in relation to the position of the sprocket holes, can cause this black bar during projection.  Current projectors cannot adjust for this non-standard alignment, so we are stuck with it.

In fact, there is no simple way to remove this bar.  Films with this problem have most commonly solved it by cropping the frame inward so viewers simply never see the bar.  The obvious drawback is that a tremendous amount of film information is lost along all edges, most embarrassingly when people's faces get cut off.  A modern solution would be the digital removal of the bar; however, the technical requirements for such a job would be exorbitantly expensive and impractical.  Producer David Shepard has chosen (1) to keep the black bar in the frame to retain as much film information as possible and (2) to crop the film to eliminate the bar only if no important visual information is lost in the process.  This is why the bar doesn't always appear throughout the DVD.  It's not the optimal solution, but it is the best compromise.

Audio ** 1/2

Composer Timothy Brock's music mirrors the visual imagery.  I don't think there is a single melodious chord in the entire chamber music score!  The music is utterly eerie and discordant.  In other words, it truly complements the already off-kilter, somewhat nightmarish world of Dr. Caligari.  Overall, it is a very good score, though it certainly will not tax your speakers or subwoofer.  Then again, booming bass has never played much of a role in silent film soundtracks, anyways.

Features ***

The extras include a gallery and a film excerpt.  The photo gallery is small and forgettable; blink and you'll miss it.  The excerpt shows three minutes of another Robert Wiene film, Genuine - a Tale of a Vampire.  To summarize it, a man falls asleep.  A woman steps out from a nearby painting, enters his dreamworld, and seduces him.  The excerpt ends abruptly when she demands that he be killed and evidence of his death delivered to her.  Bizarre.  Consider it a silent film trailer, even though it is really too short to judge.

The best feature is the commentary essay by Mike Budd, a noted Caligari scholar and author.  It provides an enlightening examination of the structure and design of the film and as well as relevant developments in the art and film world of the time.  Film students will love the commentary, while the casual viewer will develop a much better appreciation for the film's influence and well-deserved universal praise.

Summary:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the finest surviving expressionistic films of the silent era.  It still holds up surprisingly well today and delivers solid entertainment.  Image has done a great job with this DVD edition (a re-release of an earlier laserdisc edition).  By all means, catch this film if you can, and watch out for the surprise ending!