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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

November 17th, 2014

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Buy from Amazon: Blu-ray

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari turns 95 years old in a few months. It is I believe the oldest film I've ever reviewed, beating out the previous record holder, Wings. This film is widely considered the best silent horror movie of all time. That sets up really high expectations. Can the film live up to them? And how does a nearly 100-year old film look on Blu-ray?

The Movie

The film begins with two men sitting on a bench. The older one tells the younger one how spirits have chased him out of his home, but the younger one, Francis, says what he and his fiancée, Jane, have been through is worse. We then flash back to his home town when the fair arrives and Francis and his friend, Alan, are excited go to the fair. But with the fair comes Dr. Caligari and his act, a somnambulist named Cesare. But first he has to deal with the town clerk, who is in a foul mood.

We don't see his act right away, but instead are taken to a crime scene where the police are investigating the murder of the town clerk. The next day, Francis and Alan finally get to the fair and see Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Cesare has apparently been asleep for 23 years and can only be awoken by Dr. Caligari's command. Because he's been asleep so long, he has access to all knowledge, even the future. Alan asks Cesare how long will I live and Cesare responds that Alan will die at the break of dawn. It's devastating to hear, but the two of them travel home and bump into Jane, a beautiful woman they are both in love with. They know it is up to Jane to decide whom she is in love with, but they vow to stay friends no matter what she decides.

That night we see Dr. Caligari raise Cesare and in the morning, we learn that Alan was killed. Francis believes Dr. Caligari was responsible for Alan's murder and goes to the police and vows not to rest till he finds the killer. However, when he goes to Dr. Caligari with Dr. Olsen, another man is arrested for attempted murder and at first, everyone assumes he is responsible for the previous murders. This stroke of luck isn't enough for Dr. Caligari and he is still intent on getting his revenge on Francis for interfering.

I'm going to make a not so bold prediction and say The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will appeal more to cinephiles and not fans of modern horror films. The film has a certain aesthetic to it that is, dreamlike or hallucinatory. Filmmakers use matte painting to create the illusion that the film is being shot in the real world. Here, they used expressionist paintings with strange and unreal angles to create an unsettling feeling. The use of light and shadows also helps create a strong atmosphere. You can see the influence this film had over other German filmmakers, especially Fritz Lang. Or for that matter, its influence can be seen on the entire Film Noir genre. On the other hand... the movie is nearly a century old. We live in a world where tastes change rapidly enough that 300 could become a hit in part due to its visual style and only seven years later its sequel could bomb because its visual style has been copied enough to seem stale. There are elements to this film that were amazing at the time that now seem very dated. I'm not just referring to the technical aspects of the film, but also to some of the plot devices used. Even so, it is essential viewing for fans of film history.

The Extras

Extras begin with Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema, a 53-minute documentary that looks not only at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but also at the German film industry as a whole during the time it was made up to the rise Adolf Hitler. Again, if you are a fan of film history, then this is essential viewing. Up next are two restoration clips with a total running time of about four minutes. You can also watch the film with the original score, or a modern score by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky. I could see myself listening to the score while doing other work; however, I found it a little too distracting to listen to it while watching the movie.

The technical presentation is amazing, if you take into account the age of the movie. The level of details isn't always great and there are still signs of print damage, mostly early on. That said, this is likely the best the film has looked since its premiere nearly 100 years ago. Both audio options are presented in 2.0 stereo. The sound quality is top notch, but obviously there is no activity in the surround sound speakers.

The Verdict

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a piece of film history and as such it is worth owning for any cinephile. Admittedly, it is showing its age in a few places, but it is still a very atmospheric film. The Blu-ray isn't overloaded with extras, but there is enough that it is worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, Fritz Lang, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger