Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari

 (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920) 74 minutes


Director: Robert Wiene
Producer: Eric Pommer
Screeenplay: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Cinematography: Willy Hameister
Werner Krauss (Dr Caligari)
Conrad Veidt (Cesare)
Friedrich Feher (Francis)
Lil Dagover (Jane)

Reviews and notes

Festivals (digitally restored version):
2014 Berlin, Jerusalem, San Francisco, Torino, Wisconsin

Warped in all senses, fascinating and bizarre: this is the 1920 silent movie by Robert Wiene that lay down a template for today's scary movies, noirs and psychological thrillers. And it is topped off with a surprise ending that still gets used all the time now. With all the weird gaping and gurning, and the distorted perspective of its expressionist sets, Caligari is a nightmarish cinematic extension of Bram Stoker's 1897 classic Dracula, combining as it does romantic superstition with the supposedly rational world of psychiatric surveillance and control. Werner Krauss plays Dr Caligari, a mysterious showman who comes to a small German fair with his coffin-sized cabinet containing the corpse-like figure Cesare, played by the young Conrad Veidt, later to play Major Strasser in Casablanca. Caligari says that this wraith is a somnambulist; from birth he has never woken up, and this lifelong trance gives him the power to predict the future of any audience member. Horrors ensue and Caligari and his cabinet spread panic. The film draws on the eerie, occult experience of early cinema itself, whose flickering ghostly images – such as Caligari's cabinet, and all kinds of fashionable table-rapping and fortune-telling – were often to be presented in fairground tents. Caligari is a crazy black mass all on its own, a mute opera of fear.

To speak of cinema without The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) would be to speak of filmmaking without Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb. Today's dramas, horrors, noirs and thrillers have undoubtedly benefited from the infinite mastery of Robert Wiene's staple showpiece. Approaching one hundred years since its inception, this work of art debunks its historic sell-by-date. Its recent digital restoration is a testament to its inability to age. Many regard Wiene's feat as boasting the beginnings of the horror genre and the introduction of the twist ending. What is undeniable is that the classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari perfectly captures German Expressionism in its most tentative and visionary mode.

The world crafted by production designers Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm is a painted nightmare. Shadows daubed on white walls, asymmetric rooms, exaggerated edges disfigure scenes forcing characters' interactions to constantly fear contact. Wiene plays on claustrophobia as if we are hinged down inside the mind of a madman. The thematic combination of superstition and mental espionage is suitably tormenting playing on one's inability to differentiate between reality and reverie. Werner Krauss as the elusive, typically untrustworthy showman Caligari is the staple villain make up. Traipsing through the small German town of Holstenwall, Caligari exhibits the corpse of a figure called Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a sinister somnambulist who has apparently been asleep since birth.

It's fortune telling and chaos as death that riddles Wiene's fantastical landscape. At the time, Caligari was said to have unsettled its audiences. Critics applauded its ability to "squeeze and turn and adjust the eye". It was also said to be a criterion for the slowly emerging intentions of Nazism. This is by and large a warped overstatement of a film that was impossible not to influence generations of artists, thinkers and, ultimately governing societies. Wiene's film was an inspiring footnote to the ever-increasing ascendancy of twenties Dada and Surrealism. F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang masterpieces Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are just three exemplary paragons that owe their methods and poise to the work of Caligari. The archetypes forged - the villain, the hero, the deranged prisoner - became the blueprint for future directors. Despite its monochrome production, it's the film's use of colour and shading that stars. Every shot is a likeness to mania. Every intention is achieved. Caligari remains Germany's greatest gift to cinema.
- Tom Watson, Cine-Vue.

The 4K scan from the camera negative at the German Federal Film Archive, presents the film with a sharpness, precision, and clarity that previous editions have only hinted at. Cesare's close-up at the carnival, shocking and searing in even inferior prints, now reveals every inch of Conrad Veidt's visage, caked with makeup and awash in terror. The expressionist sets and color tints are visible as never before, with the contours and elongated forms adorning the mise-en-scène stunningly saturated in brights and blacks. There are certainly visible scratches and pops throughout many of the scenes, but the archive looks to have done as honorable a job as possible in eliminating imperfections without turning to digital artifacts. Indeed, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still looks like a film here, but with the polish and sheen of digital restoration tools, making it one of the most remarkable examples yet of silent cinema's great benefit from HD restoration.
- adapted from Clayton Dillard, Slant, 14 November 2014.

Live Accompaniment for our Wellington Screening
- The Somnambulist Sect

"The Somnambulist Sect are dedicated to exploring the untapped power of somnambulism, lucid dreaming, and the unconscious. Many of their rituals are based around the production of sonic systems, without thought to the rhetoric of genre, but rather the hypnotic physicality of sound waves.

For this screening, celebrating the research of Dr Calagari into the prophetic powers of somnambulism, three members of the Somnambulist Sect have transcribed their own waking dreams."

Thomas Lambert aka I.RYOKO, a Wellington-based artist with a background in composition, audio engineering, film and theatre sound. Tools include analogue synthesiser, miscellaneous electronics and human voice, utilised often in the pursuit of immersive, complex drone.

Jonny Marks who is currently the singer in The All Seeing Hand, and is often to be found in bespoke collaborations. He studied composition at Victoria University being inspired by the teachings and beings of Alan Thomas and Jack Body, and the sounds of the studios set up by Lilburn (in particular the Synthi AKS). After his studies he went on to be involved in a venue in Newtown called The Space; in and around that community Jonny would find lifelong friendships and constant musical nourishment. He went overseas for several years and in his travels spent one year learning the Mongolian style of throat singing.

Alphabethead, a tea-drinking, turntable musician capable of inter-dimensional dream travel. Using the techniques of scratching he breathes life into the skeletons of redundant vinyl; approaching the turntables as an instrument to make music rather than just a device to play it. He has been described as "a virtuoso of the phonograph turntable" and "an outrageous performer whom you really must see to fully comprehend". With an extensive touring history both as a soloist and in rock and Jazz bands, Alphabethead has also released several solo albums of instrumental music, and three albums with his band The All Seeing Hand.

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