Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari – review

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. You can read more of her reviews at silverembers.com

The name “Dr Caligari” may cause a shudder to those of a weaker disposition. The eponymous character of the 1920 classic Das Cabinets des Dr Caligari has long been a figure of terror – and with good reason. The film has been described not just as one of the first “horror” films, but one of the first examples of a movie generating a real psychological uneasiness in its audience. Caligari has been labelled in many different ways – German expressionism, horror story, psychological thriller and a classic of the silent era – but it was also Germany’s first postwar cinematic success, and it reflects the anguish of the people who had been through four terrible years.

Thanks to those classic expressionist touches, the sharp and angled sets, gothic imagery and expressionist undertones, Caligari was as visually frightening as its narrative. More recent audiences may have also been unsettle by the poor physical condition of prints of the film. Despite numerous attempts to finesse the quality of the film – first by the Filmmuseum München in 1980 and followed by the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the Lumière European MEDIA project in 1995 – imperfections were still evident: visible scratches, jumps and blank screens, blurred title cards, unstable images and bleached-out, near-featureless faces.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Caligari’s story is told in partial flashback as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells the tale of the horrors that he and fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) have endured at the hands of the Doctor. One day Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend a local carnival where they watch the act of Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) “who has slept for 23 years but will tonight wake from his dream-like trance”. The only time Cesare speaks is to tell carnivalgoers their fortune. Cesare  “knows the past and sees the future” and when Felix asks “how long will I live?” his serious, haunting response is: “To the break of dawn”. Yet the fear is not restricted to the carnival. At night Cesare is woken by Caligari to do his deathly bidding, and so begins a series of murders, abductions and mental unravelling.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

For this restoration, the film was re-mastered using the camera negative from the German Federal Film Archive in Berlin and all existing historic prints from film archives around the world. The work was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and was unveiled at the 64th Annual Berlin Film Festival in February of this year. The digital image restoration in 4K is sharp, tinted and the experience is like watching the film through fresh eyes. This is a wondrous thing for a silent film like Caligari in which every detail matters. The actors’ faces are no longer the white blurs haunting the previous versions of the film, and every startled expression, gaping eye and flared nostril can be viewed in intricate detail. The whiteness of every eyeball adds a greater drama to the film and Caligari’s twisted mouth, manic eyes and straw-like hair – with every single strand highlighted – exaggerate the psychological extremes of his personality. Cesare is very effective: his full presence, wide-eyes stare and blank expression that stares out out the screen is almost hypnotic for the audience. The imposing full-length portrait of Cesare is striking in its strong resemblance to Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which the painter created after witnessing a blood-red sky as he “sensed a scream passing through nature”. Cesare is essentially one scream that passes through the film. This is emphasised by a thunderous, edgy new score, which underlines the strangeness of the film’s imagery with sharp chords and wide dynamics. Interestingly, the music is modelled on the style of Giuseppe Becce, who wrote the score for Caligari’s origibnal 1920 release.

Perhaps the tinting is the most dramatic aspect of Caligari’s look, and the most striking change in the overall restoration. Although the original 1920s prints used tinting to indicate whether a setting was either dark or light, the 1920s prints from London and Brussels were disregarded as their dated colour scheme that would not hold against advanced printing technology. Prints from Latin America and France appeared more promising for both having a stronger colour scheme which was influenced by the mood and content of each particular scene: the scenes in the garden are toned blue and tinted orange, the night scenes can be seen to have a blue-green or blue tint, Jane’s bedroom scenes are been tinted pink and many others are orange.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Now we can see each brush stroke of the sets, from the paper trees to Caligari’s lopsided caravan, the film has become a truly theatrical experience. It is even more apparent now which films Caligari has influenced. German Expressionism extended not just to the urban menace of silents such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), but to much later films including Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) with its sharp, angular buildings, and characters named after the actors of the era.

The restoration is a wonderful tribute to a historically important film and almost akin to watching for the first time. Just don’t have nightmares.

By Sabina Stent


Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari will be released theatrically in the UK on 29 August 2014 and will open at the BFI Southbank and other selected cinemas nationwide, and will feature as part of Scalarama’s core programme

UPDATE: Full list of cinema screenings in UK and Eire for Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari

From 29-Aug-14       


From 30-Aug-14

From 31-Aug-14


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