T. it.: Il gabinetto del dottor Caligari. T. int.: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Sog., Scen.: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz. F.: Willy Hameister. Scgf.: Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig. Int.: Werner Krauß (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Friedrich Fehér (Francis), Lil Dagover (Jane), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Alan), Rudolf Lettinger (Dr. Olsen). Prod.: Erich Pommer, Rudolf Meinert per Decla Film Gesellschaft, Berlin DCP. D.: 75′. Toned
A landmark movie of German cinema, a classic of the silent movie genre, an early example of the psychological thriller, German cinema’s first international success after the First World War, a prototype of expressionist cinema, and the stuff of legend – Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is many things.
Despite its prominent status, for decades the movie was shown in a rather tired old format. Although restorations by the Filmmuseum München (1980), the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the ‘Lumière’ European MEDIA project (1995) brought important aesthetic improvements, all these works came up against their physical limits. Various signs of wear remained – the typical patina of an ‘old silent movie’: dirt, scratches and lines that flitted through the picture like white ghosts, hard contrast, that often reduced the actors’ faces to white surfaces; picture unsteadiness, and a lot of shots with jump cuts and title cards that were hard to read. The three photochemical restoration approaches relied on different sources, but they all used prints that already contained these defects. Not until now, almost twenty years after the last restoration, has the FriedrichWilhelm-Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden used the film’s camera negative from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin for the first time, and also gathered together all existing historic prints from film archives worldwide. The digital image restoration in 4K resolution was carried out by the laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari has never fallen victim to interventions by censors or cuts by the producer, so sensational new discoveries of lost scenes were not expected. Nevertheless, the new version presents the film in its most complete form to date. Achieving this was one of the biggest challenges in the project.
But what matters is to create states of anxiety and terror. The diversity of planes has only secondary importance. In Caligari, the Expressionist treatment was unusually successful in evoking the ‘latent physiognomy’ of a small medieval town, with its dark twisting back-alleys boxed in by crumbling houses whose inclined facades keep out all daylight. Wedge-shaped doors with heavy shadows and oblique windows with distorted frames seem to gnaw into the walls. The bizarre exaltation brooding over the synthetic sets of Caligari brings to mind Edschmid’s statement that “Expressionism evolves in a perpetual excitation.” These houses and the well, crudely sketched at an alley-corner, do indeed seem to vibrate with an extraordinary spirituality.
Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen, University of California Press, Berkeley