Classic horror: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on DVD

DVD. Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover. Directed by Robert Wiene. Aspect ratio 4:3. Dolby Digital. 72 minutes. 1919. Image Entertainment ID4099DSDVD. Not rated. $29.95.

Almost everything you’ve heard about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is true.

As film scholars have long noted, this 1919 German production represents the first significant attempt to fuse expressionistic style and conventional substance in commercial cinema. Under the direction of Robert Wiene, with the invaluable collaboration of production designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Rohrig, Caligari offers a boldly stylized representation of "reality" as viewed through the eyes of a madman.

The film begins prosaically enough, with handsome Francis (Friedrich Feher) promising to tell a stranger about an adventure he shared with the lovely Jane (Lil Dagover). Once Francis begins his tale, however, the film is transferred to a phantasmagorical mindscape, as characters go through their paces in a parallel universe of distorted perspectives, leaning houses, unnatural angles, and streaks of light and shadow painted across tilted walls.

Against this bizarre backdrop, director Wiene unfolds a comparatively mundane horror story about Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss in outlandish makeup and Mickey Mouse gloves), a sideshow charlatan who causes murder and mayhem with the help of his star attraction, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt, who would later cause trouble for Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca). The movie ends with a plot twist that, in its time, may have been surprising.

In his informative audio essay for Image Entertainment’s DVD release of Caligari, scholar Mike Budd places the film in historical perspective. He persuasively argues that Caligari was the first moving picture to introduce expressionism to the masses, and movies to the intellectual elite. (Budd also deals cogently with conflicting explanations for the aforementioned plot twist.) Trouble is, critic Pauline Kael was no less persuasive when she noted years ago that, while Caligari is "one of the most famous films of all time" and "a radical advance in film technique," the German masterpiece "is rarely imitated---and you’ll know why."

To put it another way: Some "masterpieces" can be savored as grand entertainment. (Citizen Kane, Modern Times, and The Godfather are just three titles that spring to mind.) Others are consumed like vegetables, because they’re somehow good for you. Caligari definitely belongs in the leafy green category.

If you simply must have Caligari for your home library---and, if you’re serious about film, you probably should---Image’s DVD edition is the one to purchase. As the liner notes proudly emphasize, it has been digitally mastered at the visually correct speed of 18 frames per second from a full-frame, 35mm print of the 1923 German reissue. The black-and-white images (in good, if not flawless, condition) are sporadically tinted according to studio color plans from the 1920s. Even the title cards look spiffy, thanks to Image’s decision to offer an English-language equivalent of the hand-painted Expressionist titles used for the film’s original release. The only drawback: Some scenes feature a translucent line across the top of the frame. Unfortunately, this is a defect of the original film copy; cropping it out would have necessitated losing part of the picture. Do not adjust your set. This is nothing wrong with your DVD player.