One of the fun things about seeing older films is looking at them from a historical viewpoint to see where they sit in the narrative of cinema and what impact they might have had. The impact is critical in the German Expressionist films of the early 20th century, with three huge titles that make up a trio of masterpieces with untold influence on cinema. Those three are Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), and Metropolis (1927), with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari recently receiving an outstanding 4K restoration worthy of its legacy.
Directed by Robert Wiene, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is often said to be the first horror film. The story is told in flashback by Francis, a citizen of the fictional town of Holstenwall, who talks of a horrific tale he and Jane, his fiancee, endured. As news of the murder of the town clerk reverberates around, Francis and his friend Alan visit a fair in town. They stop at the attraction of Dr. Caligari, who presents Cesare, a somnambulist who makes predictions about the future.
Cesare awakes and tells Alan he will die at dawn, and Alan is stabbed in his bed that night by a mysterious figure. Horrified, Francis enlists the help of Jane’s doctor father to investigate his friend’s death. This investigation becomes more urgent when Cesare tries to abduct Jane on the instructions of Caligari.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is still a stunning film and incredibly sophisticated for its time. The picture is famous for its wonderfully twisted and creepy painted backgrounds and sets, and they really give a heightened sense of hyperreality to the film, the skewed angles matching the maniacal Caligari and his plans. It’s pretty horrifying really, with Caligari pulling his strings and using Cesare to do his murderous bidding. While a gruesome and scary figure at first, Cesare eventually becomes a tragic character, and this is one of the many layers in Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s script.
It’s a long-worn cliche, but the whole film is a fever dream of sorts, right down to a twist ending that would make Rod Serling proud. It hasn’t lost its power to shock and surprise, and it still has a strong sense of pathos that brings more dimension to the characters and the story. All the actors have a strong presence, but Conrad Veidt, as Cesare, is the film’s star, with his introductory sequence where his eyes stare into the audience still an iconic and eerie experience.
Eureka Entertainment has presented the film on a 4K UHD disc that contains the 2014 restoration of the film by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and German media company Bertelsmann. The restoration was produced from a nearly complete negative at the German Federal Film Archive, with nitrate prints sourced from Latin America providing most of the missing pieces. It looks stunning, just a beautiful piece of work, and it’s amazing and a privilege to see the film in this quality—a tremendous effort.
As the original score is lost, the film is presented with the option of two scores, one by Cornelius Schwer from 2014 and the other by Uwe Dierksen and Hermann Kretzschmar from 2019. Although neither is exceptional and probably the weak link in the presentation, I prefer the subtlety of the Schwer score.
The disc contains fascinating bonus features, with interesting commentary tracks by Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, and David Kalat. There’s what feels like an obligatory interview with Kim Newman, a video essay on the film by critic David Cairns, and a long documentary called ‘The Birth of Horror in the First World War’, looking at the film’s historical context. Also included is an excellent section looking at the restoration, which I would love to see more often. The booklet features several valuable essays and excerpts from original reviews and features from Variety and American Cinematographer.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is an exceptional film that still has power over one hundred years after its release. Eureka’s disc features a gorgeous restoration with interesting features that provide essential context to the film. Bottom line: you need this disc.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is out on 4K UHD on 5th December from Eureka Entertainment.