Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is a hugely influential silent horror film, with a remarkable pedigree both before and behind the camera. This new 4K restoration got a cinema release in the UK in August, which will continue to play at limited showings throughout autumn and winter, but because these screenings are so few and far between, this dual-format DVD/Blu Ray set is your best bet to see it.
Let’s make no bones about it: if you’re a classic horror fan, you will want to see this. Its long shadow – and more specifically Conrad Veidt’s shadow, as the somnambulist Cesare – stretches over cinematic horror for decades, from Nosferatu to the classic Universal monsters, to Christopher Lee’s Dracula, all the way to Edward Scissorhands, the “judder-man” of alcopop ads, and even the Slender Man internet meme. The plot is relatively simple, as a young man investigates the figure that has been terrorising a town, and finds himself crossing paths with the manipulative Caligari (Werner Krauss), a sort of memorable cross between Santa Claus and Hannibal Lecter. Krauss and Veidt were already both well known to German audiences at the time, but this film brought them to world attention – it was a huge hit in the US – and they’re both totally magnetic, albeit in different ways. Krauss has the advantage from the start, in terms of having a more varied role that allows him range, but Veidt is also magnetic when he’s on screen.
The film actually came out towards the latter part of the era of Expressionism, but gave the movement something of an Indian Summer by bringing it to a wider international audience. The obviously stagey and crooked sets give the whole thing a nightmare quality that many other filmmakers have tried to copy. Few succeeded.
This restoration is of stunning quality too – possibly too much so, if such a thing is possible (being able to notice when Veidt is going commando is probably not what either either Robert Wiene in 1919, or the restorers in 2014, expected of the best available screen resolution.). There are also a couple of moments – for example when Cesare is awakened in close-up – where some more modern noise patterns have been generated, but nothing that takes away from the crispness of the image.
The extras are good, if somewhat geared to the professorial cinephile, with the German-language documentary about the place of the film in the history of both the Expressionist art movement and between-the-wars Germany making the driest BBC2 arts documentary look like a Japanese game show. Despite its potential inaccessibility to a casual horror fan audience, the hour-long documentary is fascinating, with plenty of references to – and clips from – a lovely selection of German silent classics of the genre.
There’s also a commentary by David Kalat, which is interesting, and concentrates on the interpretations of the film (quite a bit of the extras are devoted to asking whether or not the film reflected a subconscious prediction of the rise of the Nazis), and on working out which of the three main creators – writer, director, or designer – was really the architect of this seminal film. Rather oddly, neither Veidt nor Krauss are mentioned during the commentary, despite their parts in the importance of the film’s success and legacy.
This is a classic that every cinephile and horror fan should see in the best possible quality – at one of the cinema screenings if possible – and should also own. The extras are a little consciously specialist and esoteric – more university course material than geek material – but they are fascinating if you’re in the right mindset to learn.
Verdict: Another fantastic win for the Masters Of Cinema Collection. 10/10
David A. McIntee