Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
Visions nourished by moods of vague and troubled yearning could have found no more apt mode of expression, at once concrete and unreal.
The tilting fairground, the angular village streets, cramped corners and soaring rooftops of Herrmann Warm’s legendary Caligari sets don’t look like the world outside our front doors, but they evoke the nightmares that invade our minds. And the terrible thing about nightmares is that are all-too credible at the time. Caligari creeps into your blood, via your fingernails.
But what is the substance of this nightmare? I won’t believe you if you tell me you don’t know Caligari – it’s a a foundation stone of cinema studies. But for those of you with fading memories, this is a 1920 film, made at the Decla Studio in Berlin, directed by Robert Wiene and scripted by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Much of the production history is contested – marred by conflicting accounts and an unedifying scramble for credit. So back to the film: at its simplest, it’s the story of a travelling charlatan (Caligari) who displays a spooky cabinet at small-town fairs, lurking inside which is hollow-eyed Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a “somnambulist” who tells fortunes and wields a sharp knife. It’s a famous film because it captured the spirit of Expressionist painting on film – a shadowy, sharp mode of set design that flourished throughout the silent era, only to be recycled in 1930s street films and reborn in the 1940s with Film Noir. The Noir look is with us still, deployed with varying degrees of skill and subtlety. It’s a mighty long way down the road from Caligari to Sin City 2, for example, but there is a thread you can follow.
You’ll go even further afield to find someone to tell you that Caligari isn’t a classic – even if they don’t like it very much. It is a classic and it will always be, but it hasn’t always been easy to see it in its best light. This restoration changes all that. You could say that I am a jammy devil, because I have seen this new, improved Caligari twice now: once, on the big screen at a fancy Soho press screening, and now again on Blu-ray at home. But like most of you, I’m sure, I have endured some creaking Cabinets in my time: fuzzy grey prints, crackling video. This, instead, is undoubtedly the Caligari we were always meant to see – unsettling, and truly, terrifyingly beautiful. I have give a special mention to the beautiful intertitles here, which like many of the scenes are bathed in amber, violet and turquoise tints.
Masters of Cinema being the class act we know it to be, Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari does not have to stand alone. Chief among the extras is a full-length commentary by David Kalat. The very definition of erudite, Kalat proves an excellent guide to the film’s production, critical reception and ineffable qualities (as he has done so many times before). There is also a booklet, containing the Eisner extract and a contemporary Variety review. On the discs themselves you’ll find a fascinating German doc, Caligari: the Birth of Horror in the First World War, an utterly brilliant, and very funny, video essay by David Cairns which is a commentary in miniature, a trailer and featurettes on the restoration.
Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) is released by Masters of Cinema on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 29 September 2014. Find out more here.