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Audrey Kupferberg: Caligari Restoration

The term “film restoration” has lost its excitement.  More often than not, when a new DVD or Blu-ray of an older film is touted as being “restored,” it only means that a minimally different version has been digitally mastered.  It’s a ploy to have consumers purchase yet another copy of the same title.

And so I was mildly surprised to see a sample scene on Amazon.com from that old war horse, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, a 1920 German film that demonstrates the artistry of German Expressionism -- and perhaps also demonstrates the power of Sigmund Freud’s newly popular theories of ego and id, the conscious and the sub-conscious; as well as the diseased state of German society after their defeat in World War I.

To state the obvious, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is a very significant film.  Its stylized visuals are unique.  Its storyline has prompted thoughtful and sometimes controversial responses from film critics and cultural historians since its first theatrical release.

Yet until now, the best material on this title available for viewing in the United States has been tragically poor.  Even on the best quality authorized version, the images are grainy.  The editing seems choppy.  The beginning scene is so distorted that it seems solarized.  Moments are missing.

Sad as this situation has been, we now have a solution.  On November 18, Kino Lorber released a new restoration of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI.  The good news is that this restored version is no ploy to sell Blu-ray copies.  It’s a totally different viewing experience.  Very exciting!  Most of the 77-minute long 4K restoration is mastered from the original negative.  The film has picked up several minutes of new material.  The images are crisp and pristine.  Scenes which were not in the original negative were added to complete the viewing experience.  They were mastered from several extant 35mm prints with the help of ArchivoNacional de la Imagen -- Sodre, Montevideo, Uruguay, and those prints also provided the color record for accurate tinting.

This authoritative edition of THECABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is scanned mainly from the preserved camera negative at the German Federal Film Archive.  Several other German film archives and cultural institutions contributed to the archival restoration, as well as the British Film Institute in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The film is presented with German inter-titles with optional English subtitles, with a very fine musical score performed by the Studio For Film Music at the University of Music, Freiburg, plus an additional score by Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky.  Among the bonuses is an intelligent feature-length documentary, CALIGARI:  HOW HORROR CAME TO THE CINEMA.

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is a film that I have seen more than 60 times over the past decades. Can you imagine my delight at finally seeing it as it was shown in 1920, and as it deserves to have been seen all these years!

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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