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Kino on Video presents
"He—himself—and none other is Caligari!"
DVD ReviewThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari defies description in more ways than one. Of course, its reputation as one of the great works of German Expressionism, largely due to its mind-bending sets, is well-deserved. But its fall from critical favor over time also defies understanding. As recently as the 1950s, it was universally on critics' Top Ten lists of all-time great films; today it's barely on the radar, despite its enormous influences. Perhaps this is a reflection of the general marginalization of silent film as a whole; one notes how very few silents ranked in the AFI Top 100. But Caligari remains powerful, if quirky, and controversial to this day.
In a framing story, Franzis (Friedrich Feher) relates a tale of what happened to him and his love Jane (Lil Dagover) one year in Holstenwall when the carnival came to town. One of the exhibits was that run by the owl-like Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who exhibits his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The somnambulist can be commanded to awaken by Caligari, and when he does so he predicts the future of those paying to hear it. However, sometimes it seems that Cesare takes a hand in fulfilling these prophecies, particularly when they smack of death, or more specifically, murder. When Caligari sets his eye on Jane, Franzis attempts to unravel the mystery that lies in Dr. Caligari's cabinet.
While the framing story has a certain air of realism, the story proper does not by any means. This is attributable primarily to Hermann Warm's set designs, which take Expressionist and Cubist thought to an extreme, giving us a world that makes no pretense of verisimilitude, but reduces everything to sharp lines and crooked angles. The walls are covered with portentous but obscure writing, as if they have a kabbalistic meaning all their own. To some extent this design goes to the costuming as well, particularly Caligari's wild hair, tortoise shell glasses and Mickey Mouse gloves (in all fairness, swiped by Mickey some years later) and Cesare's skin-tight black garb that emphasizes his skeletal nature. I always enjoy the animated segment where Caligari recognizes his destiny, spelled out in words on buildings and trees before him, flashing like neon signs. This is a bravura and to my mind risky bit of filmmaking that manages not to be comic but pulls us directly into the mind of an obsessive.
While Krauss is always entertaining as the leering, scheming and vindictive Caligari, this is the film that made Conrad Veidt a star overnight. Though he's only onscreen a few minutes, those few minutes are knockouts. He gives the archetypal performance of the living dead, with his cinematic offspring including everything from Karloff's Frankenstein to Night of the Living Dead and beyond. But he also combines the jerkiness of unwilling flesh compelled to move with a certain eerie glide that makes him seem ethereal. The sequence when he strains with a mighty effort to open his eyes is highly memorable (so much so that Kino uses it as its main menu!) and is one of the highlights of cinema.
The framing story has come in for a certain amount of criticism over the years as a studio addition that minimizes the Expressionist aspect. However, as David Robinson ably demonstrates in his excellent book on Caligari (published by the British Film Institute), a framing sequence of some type was always contemplated by the writers. To my mind, it works well enough without being heavy-handed. The decision to use it is probably borne out by the fact that it has a wider accessibility than if it were purely Expressionist; the flashback is equally reminiscent of the selectiveness of memory as it is of madness. Except for the final card, which hits a note that doesn't quite ring true, the film is an intriguing investigation into who is really mad and who is really sane and whether it is possible to reliably tell the difference.
Now, on to a comparison with the Image "collector's edition disc," released several years ago. Both have different and quite substantial extra materials, though little of the Kino version's material bears directly on Caligari itself, focusing more on the director, Robert Wiene. I found the score on the Image disc preferable to either of the two presented here, allowing for a sense of the avant-garde without being tedious, as that by Donald Tosin often tends to be. Rainer Viertblock's guitar and synthesizer score here is quite acceptable.
Both versions run at about the same visual speed, so we don't need to take off points there as we need to for the wretched version of Caligari put out a few years ago by Elite. Only the Kino version, however, keeps the designation of the six acts (roughly corresponding to a reel) that were present in the original release. Both the Image and Kino versions have title cards that provide a startlingly close rendition of the Expressionist intertitles, though the Kino ones scroll as did the originals, while the Image ones do not. The best news for fans of the film is that the line near the top of the screen that plagues many portions of the Image disc is not present here, and for the most part, more of the frame is visible. This is particularly notable in scenes such as when Alan (Hans Heinz von Twardowsky) visits Franzis in his apartment; on the Image disc, they're the center of attention. However, the Kino version moves them off to the side, and the picture takes in a much larger view of the set. Also, as Caligari makes his way to the clerk for a permit for his exhibit, he is almost dwarfed by the intimidating sets here, whereas in the Image disc he is the center of attention. Seeing this version is a revelation and makes it clear that the sets were meant to be very much in the viewer's face, and not just background for the action. Alas, the Kino version can't be recommended unhesitatingly. Unlike the Image disc, this isn't windowboxed, and so much of the added screen information will be lost on sets with overscan. The early parts of the first reel are also subject to decomposition that makes blacks look silvery and gives the framing story an iridescent look. Irises in and out move like blobs of liquid; while this is an undeniably interesting effect, it's not what was intended. A different source for this first segment should have been used. Also, in a few (but not many) segments, there is substantial cropping not present on the Image disc. On the whole, however, the viewing experience is better on the Kino disc. Either version is infinitely preferable to the heavily cropped, sound-speed version on Elite's Masterworks of German Horror collection.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The tinted full-frame transfer generally looks quite good. The tints (supposedly following the German original) are quite different from the Image version, and strike a good balance between saturation and adversely affecting the image onscreen. Some sequences have some mild ringing (notably the black-garbed Cesare walking against a white wall). Whites tend to be blown out a bit, but this problem has been present on every Caligari I've ever seen so it may be a problem inherent in the negative. As noted above, the contrasty line that infests the Image disc (the result of a none-too-careful copy made by a Russian film archive) is not present at all here, which is in itself a cause for rejoicing. At times the picture quality is not quite as good as the Image disc; for example, the sign "Insane Asylum" is quite legible on the Image disc and only fairly so on this one. But overall there is little to complain about. It's too bad about the decomposition in the first few minutes; surely that could have been replaced (the Russian print has no line here so it would have been relatively easy to do, unless the licensing arrangement with the German owners prohibited it). Some fine detail is present, mostly in closeups of Caligari and Cesare.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The two music scores sound fine and have decent depth, though they rely far too heavily on synthesizers for my taste. Hiss and noise are fairly low level and won't be noticed except by those playing the disc at extremely high levels. Not much is present in the way of directionality, and the soundstage is fairly narrow.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
1 Original Trailer(s)
Layers Switch: 01h:08m:52s
More interesting is the 43-minute condensation of Wiene's 1920 picture Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire. This condensation from the Rohauer collection was thought for many years to be all that remained of the film (a snip of a few minutes from the beginning is found on both the Image and Elite discs). Although a complete print has been restored by the film institute in Bologna, this fuller version gives a better idea of what Wiene was intending to accomplish here and will probably do for most casual viewers. Again a framing story (this time, a dreaming painter) gives the opportunity for wildly Expressionistic sets that are reminiscent of those for Caligari if they are not outright the very same sets. Genuine isn't a blood-drinking vampire story, though, but more of the Theda Bara lead-men-to-their-doom style vampire. Here, Genuine (Fern Andra) is the priestess of an ancient cult that was taken prisoner and enslaved. Bought at market and kept in a sealed house, she eventually escapes and lures men into murder and madness, eventually drawing the dreaming artist Percy (Hans Heinz von Twardowsky again) into the dream. This film features an electric guitar score by Larry Maretta that is quite effective indeed. The one jarring thing about the presentation is a severe and uncharacteristic set of video intertitles that ruins the Expressionist mood.
Another interesting, though frustratingly brief, extra features Wiene himself. This excerpt from Der Film im Film (1924) depicts Wiene at the helm of a religious epic, I.N.R.I, directing massive crowd scenes and facing rebellion from the hundreds of extras who are refused overtime pay. This segment runs 2m:43s and includes sequences from the filming of the Birth of Jesus episode and the arrival at Jerusalem.
The disc has a lengthy and distracting layer change with only about five minutes left to run in the main feature. Couldn't a better spot for this have been chosen?
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsOne of the greatest (and most bizarre) achievements of the silent film hits DVD in a nearly definitive presentation. The Image version of the film still has merits, though, and devoted fans will be happy owning both. One wanting to learn more about the film itself will be advised to opt for the Image version with its commentary, but in terms of picture quality the Kino comes out ahead for those just wanting the movie in its best form.
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