For a film first released almost 95 years ago, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feels surprisingly modern. Not in any superficial sense; the acting is melodramatic, the sets are mostly painted backdrops, irising abounds, and dialogue is conveyed through intertitles. Rather, the distancing effect of these technical elements is part of what keeps this film feeling fresh. In addition, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, often called the first horror movie, finds its horror not in gigantic creatures or space aliens but in singularly despicable human behavior. Sad though it may be to say, that’s one type of horror that will probably never go out of style.
Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) has a side business exhibiting a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), as a carnival act. Meanwhile, the town where they appear is the site of several mysterious murders. Could there be a connection? Of course, Caligari controls Cesare through hypnotism and uses him as an assassin for hire. The fact that there is no obvious motive behind the murders makes them that much creepier, a feeling that deepens when it turns out that Caligari is a dabbler in the black arts and thinks he’s duplicating the feats of an 18th-century monk from whom he took the names “Caligari” and “Cesare”.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is rightly lauded for its audacious production design by Walter Riemann, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm. Nothing is naturalistic in the world they create, with bizarre angles, crazy patterns, and distorted proportions setting the film in a stage-like world obviously not our own. This fierce embrace of the artificial is one reason for the film’s continuing ability to connect to audiences because conventions that seemed transparently true to life ten or twenty years ago can seem laughably stilted today. In contrast, films that emphasize their own constructed nature often remain watchable much longer because their obvious lack of interest in mimicking physical reality cues the audience to mentally enter the world created by the filmmaker and leave their real-world expectations behind.
Although few films from the early sound era embrace artificiality as consistently as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, its visual influence can be seen in many subsequent horror movies of both the classic and not-so-classic variety. Examples include the “floating women in nightgowns” imagery of Tod Browning’s Dracula, the painted backdrops of the graveyard scene in James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the menacing, shuffling walk used by the monster in both Frankenstein and in later films in the Mummy franchise. The theme of the over-reaching scientist also became a horror staple, from Victor Frankenstein to Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) in Tarantula.
The source of horror in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feels modern because it is based on the enslavement of one person by another, enslavement not carried out by whips and chains but through mind control. Also true to modern life, in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the townspeople only become concerned with this horror when members of their community start dying. Presumably, they would have been perfectly content to be entertained by the enslaved Cesare had there been no consequences for them.
The Kino Classics Blu-Ray release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 4K restoration created from the original camera negative by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, with the digital restoration process carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata — Film Conservation and Restoration of Bologna. Tinting was added to the restored film following the example of the two earliest nitrate prints of the film, while intertitles were taken the camera negative and a 1935 print. The restoration is not perfect, with scratches and other defects more obvious in some sections than others, but it’s quite watchable and a great improvement over the source material (as can be seen in two restoration demonstrations included as extras).
The main extra included with the Kino Classics Blu-Ray release is a 52-minute documentary, “Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema”, directed by Rüdiger Suchsland. The documentary is jam-packed with information about German social and political history, about three-quarters context and one-quarter information specific to Caligari. These details would be particularly useful in film studies classes or for any viewer unfamiliar with the context in which this film was made. Suchsland’s argument is that Caligari reflects the concerns and beliefs of a post-World War I German society during a chaotic time in which the old values and rules had been discarded but nothing equally strong had arisen to replace them. He also floats the idea, put forth by Siegfried Kracauer, that Caligari represented “an unconscious presentiment of Nazism”, in particular throught the figure of the tyrant Caligari who was able to exploit a society only too willing to submit to his will.
Other extras on the disc include an image gallery, two restoration demonstrations, the trailer for the release of the restored version, a booklet essay by film scholar Kristin Thompson, and clips from three other Kino Classics releases: Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, and Nosferatu. English subtitles can be turned on or off (the intertitles are in German) and two soundtracks are included: a conventional orchestral score and a modern score by DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller).