Tuesday, 16 December 2014

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Restored on Kino Lorber Blu-Ray

In what manner will the creepy somnambulist
DEFILE this sleeping beauty?

Love? Or LUST?
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dir. Robert Wiene
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt,
Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Like many great horror movies, it all begins innocently enough. In a gentle, pastoral setting, two distinguished gentlemen are seated on a bench along a well-manicured pathway flanked by tall, lush bushes. Their conversation is animated and cultured until the men are forced to pause when a stunningly beautiful woman passes by. She's clearly and deeply immersed in her own thoughts - so much so, one might even assume she's in a trance, or sleepwalking.

Whichever it might be, she is all woman and the ethereal countenance she bears is more than enough to have most men locking their gaze upon her with the same intense, almost somnambulistic state she's in herself.

The younger gentleman, Francis (Friedrich Fehér), informs his elderly male companion that this woman is, in fact, Jane (Lil Dagover), his fiancée. The older gent is, like anyone would be, burning with curiosity. Francis willingly obliges the fellow's thirst for added illumination.

So begins our tale proper, as Francis recounts what proves to be a strange and sinister narrative, one that chills to the very bone marrow.

Robert Wiene's great German expressionistic horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, set the bar mighty high for the unique approach to cinema which captured the hearts and minds of movie-goers in the post-WWI Weimar Republic of Germany. This rich artistic period yielded such classic and highly influential films as Nosferatu, still the greatest Dracula of them all, The Golem, the mythic Hebrew legend with shades of "Frankenstein", Waxworks, the truly bizarre anthology of famous creeps in history, Faust, still the ultimate selling-one's-soul-to-the-devil shocker, Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, the thrilling mad genius super-criminal epic, The Holy Mountain, the wacko mountaineering melodrama of jealousy and betrayal starring future notorious propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, Die Nibelungen the monster-and-magic-filled myth of German "superiority", Metropolis, the incredibly prescient science fiction masterpiece, Pandora's Box, a harrowing journey into the clutches of Jack the Ripper, The Blue Angel, the sickening nadir of a man's downfall, M, the horrifying child-molester-killer-thriller, Vampyr, an eerie adaptation of Le Fanu's terrifying short stories "In A Glass Darkly" and finally, just so many more masterworks of the supremely original kind that it's nigh impossible to catalogue the lot of them without several volumes of detailed study.

All were characterized by their use of high contrast, shadows, twisted and/or stunted architecture, madness of the most insidious kind and yes, on frequent occasions, the supernatural. Most were huge box-office hits, at first in Germany and then, the whole world.

In addition to Wiene, the period gave us the immeasurable talents of Fritz Lang, Paul Leni, F.W. Murnau. Josef von Sterberg, Arnold Fanck, Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst, Carl Dreyer, Leni Riefenstahl and a bevy of filmmakers who broke new ground and shaped cinema worldwide - not only during and just after this period, but astonishingly, forevermore.

The horror films of the 30s and 40s, plus film noir of post-WWII America were, in particular, motivated to pursue new and exciting directions by the expressionists. Even straight-up studio maestros like Clarence Brown, Mervyn LeRoy, John Cromwell and Sam Wood (in addition to so many others), brought dollops of expressionism into their work, no matter what the genre. (And Lord knows, legendary production designer/director William Cameron Menzies, himself so influential, was highly rooted in expressionistic creation.)

Certainly, trying to imagine a contemporary tapestry of cinema without Blade Runner, Sin City, The Crow and virtually any movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton is impossible to imagine in a world without German expressionism. (Hitchcock's time observing the mighty machine of Germany's UFA studios is clear throughout his entire canon and he might be the clearest example of a bonafide expressionist working consistently during the first two-thirds of the 20th Century.)

Cinematic storytelling during the expressionist period was stuffed to the gills with new and exciting ways of exploring both narrative and thematic concerns. With The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Wiene not only smashed through walls already established in these early days of the art, but he essentially laid down a road map for the rest of the industry in both Germany and the world to follow and use as a springboard.

Using the aforementioned framing device, Wiene simply and elegantly presents us with a tale told through the perspective of its narrator and as such, we're plunged into a nightmare world which may, to varying degrees, feel tempered by the character of the storyteller, and yet, it's a thought that only occasionally skips across our respective cerebella like a neatly thrown stone upon still waters. We're ultimately forced to accept that this is a world that exists within the framework of fairytale and myth and not merely via the words of the tale's teller.


Plunged into his narrative, we're introduced to the wild-eyed, shock-haired, dusty-coated, top-hatted Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) in a sleazy carnival side-show where the mad showman presents Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a sinister, grimly thin, coffin-sleeping somnambulist. Under the hypnotic command of the not-so-good Doctor, Cesare steps out of his box, his constant state of sleep allowing him the uncanny ability to predict the future.

Our loving couple Francis and Jane have attended a performance with their friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Creepily, Cesare predicts that Alan's death will arrive swiftly, within the next day. Alan, alas, as per the somnambulist's divination, becomes the first of many who are murdered in the sleepy German village of Holstenwall. Francis and Lily immediately begin to investigate Alan's death. The mostly useless local constabulary are barking up the wrong trees and it's up to our plucky lovebirds to get to the bottom of this grave mystery.

It doesn't, however, take a degree in rocket science to predict that some extremely nasty stuff, fraught (of course) with danger, will assuredly assail our adoring couple.

Given the political backdrop in Germany at this time: rising inflation, widespread disgust over the Government's acquiescence to the victors of WWI and an overwhelming desire for new leadership (who'd turn out to be Adolph Hitler), it's not surprising that much of the evil in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is shrouded in the duplicity of respected public figures who present a side of benevolence to the world, but under the cloak of night and/or disguise, plan to carry out their nefarious schemes involving deceit and treachery. In the case of Caligari himself, this rumpled psychopath is not what he appears to be on the surface and indeed has a dual identity from within which he's able to cloak his madness.

The film is overflowing with one creepy set-piece after another: nail-biting stalking sequences, murders most foul, shadow-enshrouded evil, edge-of-the-seat chases and shocking moments of jaw-dropping revelations. Most importantly is the point of view which not only yields a mediated world, but approaches a final third packed with icy, crazed horror and then delivers a shocking, surprise denouement - one which, if taken literally, offers one level of perfectly acceptable horror, but if taken on a deeper level, yields terror fraught with the monstrous repugnance which was already gripping Weimar Germany and would, in a few short years, transform into the abhorrent reality of The Final Solution.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the progenitor of a new and exciting cinema that changed the shape of the medium, and did indeed lead the charge of a generation of films which foresaw the groundwork being laid for the most insidious madness and hatred of all. The film's importance artistically, culturally and socially makes it a motion picture to be experienced again and again, but also placed under the microscopic view of insanity incarnate.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available on Blu-Ray via Kino-Lorber. This is easily one of the best home-entertainment acquisitions one could possibly make. The new 4K restoration of the film has rendered an image that's never looked better and on Blu-Ray, it's utterly eye-popping, especially the clarity of the colour tinting. Added features include: German intertitles with optional English Subtitles, a phenomenal score performed by the Studio For Film Music at the University of Music, Freiburg (and for those so inclined, which I'll admit I was not, a separate score-track presented by DJ Spooky), a fine essay in booklet form by Kristin Thompson, an extensive image gallery, a fascinating demonstration of the restoration and the pièce de résistance, the brilliant 52-minute documentary Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema. In Canada, the Kino Lorber edition is available via VSC (Video Services Corp.)