WARNING: for those who’ve never seen Robert Wiene’s 1919 expressionistic horror classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, this review has more spoilers than a Rex Beach filmography.
Many people for many more years, decades really, have engaged in friendly arguments over this post-Great War masterpiece. Whether it was the first horror flick (it wasn’t, but it definitely laid the narrative groundwork still “homaged” today), the first expressionistic motion picture (nope, but certainly the most influential) or the first horror feature (honestly, I’m not sure). One thing every fan/collector can agree upon: this new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray IS the definitive edition of this classic – a must for every cinema history buff, horror enthusiast or would-be serial killer.
The credits alone on this version read like a Who’s Who in international preservation. I mean, EVERYBODY seems to have had a hand in assuring that the most perfect rendition to date of CALIGARI survives in its most pristine form. The majority of this outstanding 4K restoration was taken from the remarkably surviving original camera negative, housed at the GFFA (German Federal Film Archive). The rest was garnered from points east, west, north and south.
What a kick it is to see this psychological thriller with (mostly) crystal-clarity, embodying such detail that one can discern unsightly pockmarks through the less gruesome death pallor makeup (CALIGARI‘s influence has spanned the history of the horror genre, A, B and Z-productions notwithstanding. I’m talkin’ James Whale to Tod Browning to Val Lewton to Terence Fisher to Mario Bava, George Romero and Dario Argento. And, yes, Herk Harvey (the stark zombie-tized faces in CALIGARI are an obvious inspiration for the look of his 1962 indy shocker Carnival of Souls).
The plot is intriguing enough: Francis, a strange young man (Friedrich Feher) tells an older companion (Hans Lanser-Rudolf) of “the horrors my fiancée and I have been through,” suggesting that evil spirits played a part. As he recounts his plight, a beautiful woman (Lil Dagover) drifts by, void of any emotion and seemingly in a trance (or what we today call Fashion Week).
Flashbacks reveal a happy little Bavarian village wherein Francis, the woman (billed as “Jane”) and his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) cavort like lambs about to be led to the slaughter. Everyone’s excited about the arrival of a traveling carnival, particularly its most notorious attraction, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his living dead specimen Cesare (Conrad Veidt, in the role that would shoot him to worldwide acclaim). That Francis and Alan (a red flag character, if, for no other reason, his unholy resemblance to Klaus Kinski) both compete for Jane’s attention proves secondary to the sudden outbreak of violent murders. It hits home when one of the victims is Alan. It’s all traced back to the local Hall of Records elected official, whose death is a shoo-in once he refuses to grant a permit (Kim Davis, beware). A false arrest, Caligari’s apparent air-tight alibi and the sexual obsession of the doctor and Cesare toward Jane set the stage for the supposed concluding act – a surreal abduction and chase through the jutting and perspective-screwy askew expressionist sets – images that have haunted horror pics for nearly 100 years.
This all leads to the twist on the twist finale: Twist 1: when not touring small towns, trolling for victims, Caligari is the head of the local insane asylum; Cesare a comatose patient. And Twist 2: the giveaway on the weird nightmarish backdrops and sets – Francis is the asylum’s craziest psychotic, and Jane a fellow patient whom he’s obsessed with.
Pretty revolutionary for 1919 (or 1920, depending upon which film history books you subscribe to). The movie indeed caused a global sensation – a big move toward the unmistakable concept that the flickers were indeed “growing up” (No less than Carl Sandburg was a big fan and CALIGARI supporter). Sam Goldwyn took a flyer on the import and obtained the rights for American release, where he scored a blockbuster hit in early 1921. 1920-21 itself was a doctor-horror breakout year, with CALIGARI competing with John Barrymore’s take on Jekyll and Hyde.
The direction of Wiene is reportage with benefits (nothing after CALIGARI ever brought him comparable kudos). Prior to production, Fritz Lang was bandied about as a possible director, but Lang was instead assigned to The Spiders, a delirious, incredibly addictive serial fantasy. Still, one ponders what a Langian CALIGARI would have revealed, perhaps even rivaling the director’s personal life (although I doubt it). Nevertheless both Lang and Wiene claimed credit for the framing story. The d.p. on CALIGARI was Willy Hameister; this new monochrome triumph (with the 1920 reconstructed color tints) can now at last stop his undoubtedly frustrated corpse from turning over in his grave. The screenplay was cowritten by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, with uncredited assist from the works of Freud. It stemmed from Janowitz’s spying a horrific lurking figure at a local carnival, prior to a young girl’s murder. How expressionistic. Mayer’s raison d’etre was to assure a starring role for his lover (before Dagover got the part). How sexpressionistic. Like the amazing sets and exhibition posters (designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, key leaders of the expressionist movement then inhabiting the world’s foremost artist and sin colony, aka Berlin), the title cards (in the original German with optional English translations) are visual feasts in perfect unison with the jagged, freakish imagery. Fun fact #1: the iconic paper-constructed sets cost less than $800.
The CALIGARI weirdness has never truly worn off – it still (at least at some level) creeps out even some contemporary gore-mongers. For over forty years after its release, Hollywood tried to fashion a remake, but just couldn’t match the bizarre ambiance that made it initially such a smash. After Psycho, it was thought that author Robert Bloch might give it a shot, as insane, kwazy folk had become his cottage industry. In 1962, Bloch’s scripted version of CALIGARI finally made a brief appearance with a suitably oddball cast including Glynis Johns, Dan O’Herlihy, Constance Ford and Estelle Winwood. But it couldn’t hold an electro-shock prod to the original and quickly disappeared. I know it bears little relation to its 1919 namesake, but I would like to see it (tried once on late-night TV, but fell asleep after ten minutes). To this day, the likes of Tim Burton and Rob Zombie threaten another remake. It may be inevitable; (sigh) at least one can be grateful that the unnecessary do-over won’t come from Baz Luhrmann!
As indicated earlier, it’s a wondrous to see a gorgeous print of this title. In fact, it’s wondrous to see it at all – the reward of over a half-century of unwatchable, washed-out, dupey copies, projected at the wrong speed (generally clocking in at 60-minutes when the correct running time is closer to Kino’s 77-minute presentation), missing key sequences and with rotten musical tracks (if any at all).
Collectors have two musical options: an appropriate composition by the Studio for Film Music at the University of Music, Freiberg 1. BR./Coproduction with 2Eleven Contemporary Music Projects/The New Music Institute at the University of Music, Freiberg 1. BR. (take a deep breath, folks, you earned it) or an additional score by Paul D. Miller (who, I should warn you, also goes by the name of DJ Spooky). I opted for the former, on the grounds that I would never have to recite it.
Natch, the idea of a madman hypnotizing Germany into a land of murderous horror did not go unnoticed by film historians after 1933, the chief scribe being Sigfried Kracaur who, if you didn’t need any further noggin-nudging, entitled his 1947 landmark book From Caligari to Hitler (a still-in-print bible for all cinephiles). Fun Fact #2: Der Fuhrer banned the movie, as it intimated that authority was insane.
But let’s not ruin Halloween with any talk of socio-economical, geo-political analogies. At least not till next November. For now, let’s focus on the cinematic pleasures of unabashed skin-crawling. Imagine yourself braving a cold and stormy autumn night in your living room with Kino’s CALIGARI. I promise you, like Francis’s fate, it’s a keeper.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Black and white with color tints. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics. CAT # K1515. SRP: $29.95.