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Returning to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by David Robinson

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

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A special screening of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) will be taking place at Victoria Rooms, Bristol on Thursday 27th April; Free Entry; 7:30pm – 9:30pm. With Live Music by David Bednall! More Info on the University Bristol Website.

We know we are going on quite a bit about this new release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), but we have good reason to be excited, as this new restoration is quite impressive! So we thought we would ask our patron and very good friend Film Historian and Author David Robinson (author of the BFI’s Film Classic: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari book) about his thoughts about Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari.

The following article also includes an introduction by Anke Wilkening, supervisor of the restoration of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stiftung. Anke discusses the restoration and gives an incredible look into the huge amount of work that took place to bring Caligari back to the screen.

Our thanks as well to Steve Hill and all the wonderful team at Euereka Entertainment’s Masters Of Cinema for allowing us to share Anke’s thoughts about restoring Caligari.

Returning to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by David Robinson

Finally, with this amazing new restoration, we can see The Cabinet of Dr Caligari very much as its first astonished audiences discovered it in 1920, its strange images in sharp photographic definition and evocative colour tinting. It was the wonder film of that year, and the sensation it created wherever it was shown brought unprecedented prestige to the German cinema, which before the First World War had lagged far behind France and the USA, and after the war had experienced two years of economic ostracism. Caligari opened up a world market to German films – and to “Expressionism”

The film indicated new aesthetic ambitious for the cinema; new relationships between film and the plastic arts, between actor and setting, between image and narrative. It launched the German “Expressionist” cinema. The links it established between film – still only 25 years old – and the most progressive art movements of the day startled and attracted an intellectual public which until then had rarely paid attention to a still dubious area of show business.

Viewed afresh, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari remains, after almost a century, a staggeringly effective film. Very few feature-length films of its period are so compellingly and enjoyably watchable. It makes a dazzling merit of its tiny studio stage and shoestring budget, thanks to its crazy cubist/expressionist decors, and the impudence of the spinning umbrellas which masquerade as a fairground and the descending flight of steps which magically conveys us there from the city. The story is economically told, with its own jagged rhythm and coherent stylised performances.

The painted landscapes, the menacing Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the uncanny Cesare (Conrad Veidt) – vanishing into his own shadow; or agonisingly, mesmerizingly opening the great enchanted eyes – have bequeathed some of the most haunting images of the cinema. It is the first great horror film.

Caligari on the Run 02

The story of the making of the film, and the true responsibility for its innovation and power has been obscured by subsequent history. After 1933 and the rise of Nazism, the Jewish members of the unit fled into exile. Those left behind mostly preferred to forget their association with a film condemned by the Nazis as representative of decadent tendencies in art. For those who emigrated, however, this world-famous film was an irresistible calling card, and each claimed the importance of his own contribution. In particular the writer Hans Janowitz committed to history a document, “The story of a famous story”, which claimed entire credit for the idea of creating this expressionist world of distorted settings and stylised acting for himself and his co-writer Carl Mayer. He also bitterly attacked the producers, Erich Pommer and Rudolph Meinert and the director Robert Wiene for “distorting” their story by framing it with scenes in a lunatic asylum, indicating that the story was all the fantasy of the hero’s disordered mind.

The subsequent discovery of the only copy of their original manuscript – of which there was only ever one draft – now conclusively disproves his claims. The writers made no mention of the possible innovative design of the film (as Janowitz claims): it is written as good but stylistically conventional horror story, set on locations, with the normality of streets and cars. It is hard and complicated to reconstruct the story of the making of the film, but what is certain is that the two impoverished writers took their story to Erich Pommer, who later said he bought it because he saw the possibility of a cheap film and a horror story – a style then much in vogue. Pommer handed the practical side to Meinert, who engaged three good designers, Herman Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig.

Caligari awakens

They were versatile and up-to-date in their artistic tastes. Expressionism was no longer a strange avant-garde, but a current fashion in the theatre, and it was no doubt the theatre (as well as the demands of economy and of Decla’s small studio stages) that inspired the innovation of the painted sets. None of the main cast was Wiene’s first choice, but it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles: The images of Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Lil Dagover are iconic in cinema memory.

On its appearance, many film-makers were critical of its confined, studio-bound style. Interestingly the most enthusiastic and perceptive contemporary review was by a 27-year old American critic, Albert Lewin who was to become a director of bold style, with films like The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) andPandora and the Flying Dutchman (1950): for Lewin it was “the only serious picture, exhibited in America so far, that in anything like the same degree has the authentic thrills and shock of art. The tale of a madman unfolded thru mad scenery by mad characters has greater intrinsic reality than any of our flat photographic pictures. It ceases to be merely a succession of photographs, and becomes alive – a creation, spiritually real and vital in a way peculiar to the screen, as unthinkable in any other form as are the poems of Heine”.

So many have claimed credit for this monument of cinema – notably the writers and the producer Erich Pommer (who was in fact absent at the time the film was being made!). The director Robert Wiene died too early to join in the game of snatching this invaluable calling-card. Yet in historical retrospect it is certainly he who deserves greatest credit for pulling the distinctive elements – the design, the stylised acting, the bizarre narrative – into such an integrated whole; along with the producer Rudolph Meinert, the producer who (history tells us) was generously open to all experiment, and was the one who said, “Yes”.

The New Restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Anke Wilkening

Despite its prominent status, for decades The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was shown in a rather tired old format. Although restorations by the Filmmuseum München (1980), the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the “Lumière” European MEDIA project (1995) brought important aesthetic improvements, all these works came up against their physical limits.

Various signs of wear remained – the typical patina of an “old silent movie”: dirt, scratches and lines that flitted through the picture like white ghosts, hard contrast, that often reduced the actors’ faces to white surfaces; picture unsteadiness, and a lot of shots with missing frames, resulting in a jump cuts and title cards that were hard to read. The three photochemical restoration approaches relied on different sources, but they all used prints that already contained these defects.

Not until now, almost 20 years after the last restoration, has the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stiftung in Wiesbaden used the film’s camera negative from the German Federal Film Archive in Berlin for the first time, and also gathered together all existing historic prints from film archives worldwide. The digital image restoration in 4K resolution was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata – Film Conservation & Restoration in Bologna.

The Silent Witness: The basic questions when restoring a film are: What did the film look like when it was first released? What aesthetic characteristics did it have that were typical of its time? What distinguished it from other productions?

In the case of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, the people involved have proven to be less than reliable witnesses. Film history itself also perpetuated many a myth and legend over decades.

Ironically, the only source that literally incorporated everything – from the filming and production of the premiere print to numerous distribution and archive prints – was long overlooked: the camera negative, a “silent witness”. To learn its version of the story you have to read the traces left by those through whose hands it has passed during the course of over 90 years. The prints produced between 1920 and 1940, which are archived in film archives in Europe, Latin America and the U.S, are an important resource in this process.

Doctor's about

Camera negative and prints:  The history of the camera negative begins at the end of 1919, after filming finished, at the Decla Filmgesellschaft lab in Berlin. In 1920 there was no high-quality duplicating material available, so each individual print was taken directly from the valuable camera negative. This was done by hand at the beginning of the 1920s, because post-production was not yet an automated process. In the mid-1920s, however, the switch to automatic duplication, which allowed for a much more efficient production of prints, was largely completed. Thanks to this development in the history of technology, we have what we need to date and evaluate the surviving prints, as the changing production methods left their mark on each of the prints.

Unfortunately, a German distributor’s print from 1920 remains missing to this day. However, two pre-1923 Latin American distributor’s prints survive: A private collector gave one to the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf, and the other to the Archivo Nacional de la Imagen – Sodre in Montevideo, from where it finally went to the Cineteca di Bologna.

They exhibit the typical method of production used in manual duplication. The print is positive edited. As the printing machines did not automatically handle light changes, the negative could not be cut according to the sequence of shots in the movie. Instead, shots that had a similar density and that were to therefore be printed with the same amount of light and tinted the same colour were joined together into one reel. According to the convention of the time, the black-and-white prints were tinted by immersion in baths, which results in mainly the light areas of the image appearing coloured. In some scenes the densities were additionally dyed by a chemical manipulation of the photographic emulsion.

Only once the positive had been printed, developed and coloured were the shots and title cards put together in the positive editing in accordance with the montage of the film. So each print was unique. Sometime later, a print was produced for French distribution that is now at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.

When this print was made, the negative was already set up for printing machines with automatic light change. The print is spliced only at the locations of the various colour changes. A simplified colour scheme distinguishes prints from the British Film Institute (London) and Cinémathèque Royale (Brussels) from these early prints. They must have been made in the mid-1920s when the negative was once again adjusted to make printing more efficient: Only the night scenes tinted blue are mounted on separate reels, while the rest of the film is orange throughout.

Caligari goes fifth

The Odyssey of the Camera Negative: Ufa, which in 1922 had taken over Decla, which had in the meantime merged with Deutsche Bioscop, transferred thecamera negative to the inventory of the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin, which was founded in 1935. That same year, a 16-m black and white print was made here, commissioned by the movie director Gerhard Lamprecht, whose collection would later form the basis of Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. This was followed by a 35-mm black-and-white print for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937, which also bought prints of other German silent movie classics such as Die Nibelungen and Metropolis for the newly established film department.

After the end of World War II, the negative – along with other footage from the Reichsfilmarchiv – ended up in Moscow by way of the Russian allies. According to the German Federal Film Archive database, in 1972 it was transferred from the Soviet Gosfilmofond film archive to the GDR’s Staatliches Filmarchiv in East Berlin. Since 1990 when the East German film archive was incorporated into the German Federal Film Archive as part of reunification, it has been part of the latter’s inventory.

The camera negative has survived this odyssey remarkably well, but the first act was lost at some point after 1937. It was also the subject of earlier physical restoration attempts. Some damage to the perforations was probably repaired in the 1930s. These outmoded repairs had to be redone as part of the present restoration work in order to achieve good picture stability in the scan result. The most far-reaching intervention for the current restoration was performed either in Moscow or East Berlin: The chemical treatment of the base side of the negative to remove scratches that had been caused by the making of a large number of prints. This technique is not without risk, as it often causes damage to the surface of the film. In the case of the Caligari negative, the current restoration benefited from this early physical restoration attempt: The chemical treatment was carried out very professionally, and numerous scratches were eliminated with no side effects, so a very good scan result was already achieved for the current restoration, which only required minimal digital retouching.

More Caligari 06

Completion of the Detail Work: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari has never fallen victim to interventions by censors or cuts by the producer, so sensational new discoveries of lost scenes were not expected. Nevertheless, the new version presents the film in its most complete form to date. Achieving this was one of the biggest challenges in the project.

The camera negative has jump cuts in numerous shots. Often 10 to 20 frames are missing. This is immediately obvious because at a running speed of 18 frames per second, as is the case here, 20 frames mean a gap of about a second. Besides unsteadiness with geometric distortions, the jump cuts affect the rhythm of the film. Often, several frames are missing at the beginning and end of shots as well. Many of the iris-ins and -outs, which fulfil an important narrative function, are affected by this.

The best available material was painstakingly gleaned from the various prints in order to restore smooth motion to the shots. Comparing the camera negative with the prints revealed that the prints could be used to add in missing frames in 67 shots. However, the prints are significantly inferior to the camera negative in terms of sharpness, contrast, and damage from scratches. If you incorporate the missing images a difference is especially visible where details are lost in the highlights and shadows due to high contrast, or where the image is heavily damaged.

For particularly large differences the frames were assembled by a digital composite: Moving characters from the prints were placed onto static backdrops taken from the camera negative. However, lack of detail, for example in faces, cannot be simulated. The success of a digital composite also depends on the image content: If the motion sequence is too complex or too fast, too many artefacts would be generated. In such cases, an approximation is attempted by retouching damage and adjusting the contrast.

Expressionist Title Cards:  For a long time the Deutsche Kinemathek’s 16-mm print was thought to be the only source that contained the expressionist title cards. However, the camera negative contains most titles as flash titles so that the starting situation was significantly better than in previous restorations. The flash titles were extended according to the length of the flash titles were extended according to the full-length titles of the 16mm print. As a flash title is only a single image, it produces a very static impression, because the movement of a film running through a projector is missing.

Therefore, the movement in the titles in the 16-mm print was used as a reference and applied to the extended flash titles. In addition, the grain structure of the camera negative was placed on the titles as well as a slight density flicker.

In the present version, the 16mm print is the source only for the first act that is missing from the negative, and the scrolling titles.

Caligari 07

Historic Colouring: The character of the historic dyes can be reproduced significantly better using digital technology than with photochemical restoration. Although the camera negative contains all the information of the shot, its interpretation is dependent on other sources. The prints created from the negative in the 1920s provide information about whether a setting is dark or light and how it was tinted – but which print should be used as a reference? The prints from London and Brussels are ruled out, because they were produced in the mid-1920s with a simplified colour scheme, since printing technology had changed in the meantime.

The two Latin American prints and the French print have the same colour scheme: The background story and scene in Olsen’s garden are toned blue and tinted orange; the night scenes are tinted blue-green or blue, while the scenes in Jane’s room are pink and all the others are orange.

However, the tints in the French print look slightly different: The orange is much paler, more pastel-like, and there is a strong rather than pale pink, and the night scenes are deep blue instead of blue-green.

The restoration follows the colour scheme and the hue of the two Latin American copies as the earliest surviving references for the film’s look. Nitrate prints of other Decla Filmgesellschaft productions indicate that during this period Decla used highly saturated orange, a pale pink and blue-green tints for night scenes.

Caligari 08

A Fresh Look at Caligari:  Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is one of the most-watched silent movies. But none of the previous versions does justice to its significance as a film classic. No matter how well you know Caligari, the new version provides a new viewing experience.

This is made possible thanks to the camera negative and the fact that all the surviving film sources were considered.

But our intensive work with it also tells us that there are still open questions that even the camera negative, our “silent witness,” cannot answer. Perhaps one day a German distributor’s print will emerge after all that reveals the final secrets of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

Caligari poster
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