Film Coming soon to a cinema near you is a brand new, as distributor Eureka suggests definitive restoration of director Robert Weine’s German expressionist classic, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari and I’ve been lucky to be sent a preview disc ahead of the London press screening because I’m somewhat out of the area. In Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll this seminal silent came 235th amongst critics, 322nd with directors which is surprising considering the near century long influence it's had on the cinema which came after with obviously horror and film noir most clear in its debt thanks to its dramatic lighting and sinister overtones.
Away from its film studies canonicity, now that it’s back in cinemas, can it be simply viewed as popular entertainment? The set-up is entirely unlike anything in contemporary mainstream film. In a small German town, carnival entertainer and hypnotist Dr. Caligari introduces his audience to a somnambulist and apparently clairvoyant Cesare who sets about predicting the future of audience members. At least it seems like clairvoyance until Caligari sends his cohort out into the world to carry out his bidding. Cue mystery, murder, mayhem and lashings of psychological horror as the towns inhabitants seek to find the truth of this unusual force.
The extent to which this scares you rather depends how much you can buy into the artifice. The sets, deliberately jagged and abstract are the stuff of a Munch painting and the actors frequently have to shift their weight in unusual ways in order to fit through rhombus like doors. The performances are expressive but that works with the general mood of excess. Perhaps the best entry point for modern audiences is the new soundtrack composed by John Zorn, which partly utilises the Karl Schuke organ at the Berliner Philharmonie and mixes classical, jazz and other genres to thoughtfully enunciate the emotional undercurrent of events.
My first experience of Caligari was at the Liverpool Biennial 2006 when I was invigilating at Afoundation in Greenland Street building, in the furnace section of what’s now Camp and Furnace, or the big room with the long tables and caravans. Goshka Macuga’s Sleep of Ulro installation included a giant wooden architectural construct directly influenced by the sets in the film, particularly in the studio bound moments when Caligari is apparently being chased across the landscape. At The Furnace, visitors could run up such a space then find themselves trapped in a dead end, much like the structures on screen (images here).
Accompanying the screener was an explanation of the how the restoration came about the gist of which is in the video I’ve included above. Even on this timecoded single layer dvd-r I can see clarity the new image has, the care which as been taken in sourcing the best materials to create as lucid an image as possible. To some extent it’s almost too unblemished. Scuzzier prints have ancient quality to them which in the case of silent horrors always enhanced the atmosphere. But it would be churlish of me to suggest that this isn’t an improvement of some rep copy which has done the rounds and it might just mean the film will survive for another hundred years.
Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is released theatrically in he UK & Eire on the 29th August.