The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – New Restoration at SF Silent Film Festival

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Well, I stayed up beyond my bedtime to see the new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and I’m glad I did.

The print was exquisite and came from the German company Murnau Stiftung (who also have restored Metropolis, Nosferatu and many other German classic silents). If the Murnau people can be faulted with anything, it’s that their restorations are so perfect it’s hard to believe they are from films of the silent era.

I understand that they located the original camera negative for all but the first reel of the film. It shows! The clarity and contrast were amazing. And there was virtually no dust or scratches. You can tell that the first reel was from different sources (apparently many different sources) but it was also very, very good. The projection at the Castro is also remarkable – astoundingly crisp and detailed.

I’m not an expert on the film, so I can’t tell if there were any new scenes, extended scenes or different editing. I suspect it was pretty much the same edit of previous releases.

Donald Sosin performed live with a sampling synthesizer. The score was riveting. It is the first time I’ve heard Donald play a synth instead of a real piano. It worked well with this film. His music really fit the movie (as his work always does) and really underscored the tension and creepiness. It was a very “modernist” score. Sosin relied on the expanded harmonic pallet that characterized the avant guard music of the 20’s (and beyond), and varied the mood from subtle and understated to edgy and harsh.

I liked the broad array of sounds that the synth provided. He used a combination of orchestral sounds and some that were more synthetic. I’m not a big advocate of synths (despite the fact that Alloy always uses one), but it worked really well in this setting.

I asked him if he had improvised mostly and he said that only the Caligari character’s theme was composed in advance. It’s almost hard to believe, the score sounded so tied to the film, and so tightly composed that’s it’s a wonder he could do this on the fly. I overheard someone in the audience comment “Sosin really knocked it out of the park.” I would certainly agree.

Ken Winokur