Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Director: Robert Wiene
The Least Picture Show already aired its thoughts on Robert Wiene’s 1920 masterpiece when it was re-released in the cinemas recently (see here). In this review, we’ll confine ourselves to commenting on some of the features of this new Blu-ray edition from Eureka. Just as well, as there’s a lot to say.
What we have here is a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with new colour tinting and recreated intertitles. While it still retains some fine scratches and the occasional flicker and roughening of texture, the film looks altogether much fresher and livelier than it has seemed in previous incarnations. So much so, in fact, that you might find yourself rethinking some of your long-held notions about it. Whereas before the movie seemed dimmed by neurosis, exuding an atmosphere of exhaustion right from the outset, now it feels much more lively and robust. The actors playing Alan and Jane wear surprisingly little make-up, and their faces come across as cheerfully youthful, people you might meet in the street rather than figures from a nightmare, starved of light and oxygen.
All of the scenes with strong directional lighting, such as the one where we first encounter Alan in his wonky-walled garret, or the one where the police puzzle over the dead body of the town clerk, now punch through with strong contrasts of brightness and shadow. The sequence where Jane visits the fair looks extremely clean and crisp too, as does the famous close-up of Cesare awakening. The newly applied yellow tinting makes his face look like an Aztec mask, so it’s all the more dramatic when he finally twitches into life, and you can see every flicker of his eyelids and the grain of his irises.
Turning to the extras, there’s a 52-minute celebration of German silent cinema that goes into a fair bit of detail about the country’s social history in the years before and after WWI. It talks about the rise and fall of Expressionism (already passé in other artforms when it became fashionable in cinema), and the way in which an unstable and inflation-beset society took solace in ever more lavish films. It paints a picture of the ’20s as a decade when German cinema changed with a speed akin to pop music in the ’60s.
There’s also a witty 15-minute video essay by David Cairns which examines the competing claims that have been made by various parties to be seen as the film’s auteur, and a nice-looking 8-minute piece showing the digital restoration of the film – including the reinsertion of missing frames and the repair of perforations – in a high-tech lab.
The audio commentary by David Kalat goes over some of the same territory again in scholarly detail, sketching in the cultural context, patiently unpicking who among the film’s key contributors did what, and trying to reconcile the different accounts that have been left to us, namely by co-scriptwriter Hans Janowitz, the producer Erich Pommer and the set designer Hermann Warm. Along the way, he describes how the love triangle in the film reflected one that the two screenwriters had with a young actress named Gilda Langer, and he also mentions the various attempts at getting sequels off the ground, which didn’t bear fruit until 1962. All in all, there is much to chew over here for fans of Caligari, not least an HD transfer which leaves this silent classic seeming more vital and fascinating now than perhaps at any time since its original release.