The quintessential film of the German Expressionist movement was released in 1920 but it now gets a shiny new 4k release as part of the wonderful Eureka Masters of Cinema series. Often regarded as the first true horror film, how does The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari) hold up a century on?
When a carnival arrives in a small German town, it gives the sinister Dr Caligari the opportunity to present Cesare, a somnambulist who, according to the Doctor, has been asleep for all of his life. But Caligari controls the sleeping man through hypnosis and commands him to do his evil bidding, plunging the town’s people into fear of being murdered. Our hero Franzis must stop the madness and save his love Jane from the perils of the insanity around him.
Context is everything when you watch a film with the reputation of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. On the one hand, it’s a stunning celluloid representation of all that German Expressionism tried to achieve. Indeed, its position as a classic is due in no small part to the complexities of its design. The film, made entirely within a studio, has such striking sets that they linger in the mind more than almost anything else, with jagged angles, harsh shadows and intense lines representing the way the characters, and the filmmakers, see the world. And the world was post-WW1 Germany…
If you follow the line of German Expressionism you find your way towards some of the reasons why people followed Hitler, blindingly walking towards Nazism like the sleepwalker in this film, although see Michael Haneke’s outstanding The White Ribbon for the most eloquent film dealing with that subject.
So there’s no doubt that the film is hugely influential. It has what may well have been the first twist ending, one which explains some of the ridiculously OTT performances even by silent film standards and provides a context for them. But as a horror film, it doesn’t retain any of its power to frighten in the way that, say, Nosferatu does, despite being made only two years later, or 1932s still unsettling Vampyr. Simply put, it just isn’t scary and carries nowhere near the power of other silent classics like Metropolis.
Despite that, it’s a must-see addition to your collection. The disc comes with a 50-page booklet providing much of that oh-so-important context, and you can enjoy your pick of different music soundtracks and commentaries. There are small films about the restoration (which is superb) and Kim Newman talks about the representation of asylums in film. Best, though, is Caligari: The Birth of Horror in the First World War, a fascinating 52-minute documentary on the cultural and historical impact of the film.
You may not watch The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and feel afraid. You may not feel particularly moved emotionally at all. But you will see an important historical piece of cinema with a legacy that’s still influential today. Isn’t that enough?Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari is available on 4K from Eureka Entertainment from December 5th.