Click here to learn more about anamorphic widescreen!
Go to the Home Page
Go to The Rumor Mill
Go to Todd Doogan's weekly column
Go to the Reviews Page
Go to the Trivia Contest Page
Go to the Upcoming DVD Artwork Page
Go to the DVD FAQ & Article Archives
Go to our DVD Links Section
Go to the Home Theater Forum for great DVD discussion
Find out how to advertise on The Digital Bits

Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 3/14/00



The Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema
(1999) - Elite Entertainment/National Film Museum

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits


The Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(1919) - Decla-Bioscop/Goldwyn

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D/C-/B

Specs and Features:


51 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered (film on side A, disc 1), double Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, 12-page liner note booklet written by Miroslaw Lipinski, photo and art gallery, footage from Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920), scene access (8 chapters), languages: English title cards with music (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: none


Der Golem: How He Came Into the World
(1920) - Projektion-AG Union/Famous Players-Lasky Corporation

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/F/B

Specs and Features:


68 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered (film on side B, disc 1), double Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, 12-page liner note booklet written by Miroslaw Lipinski, photo and art gallery, scene access (8 chapters), languages: English title cards (no audio), subtitles: none


Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror
(1922) - Prana-Film/Film Arts Guild

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B

Specs and Features:


64 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered (film on side A of disc 2), double Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, 12-page liner note booklet written by Miroslaw Lipinski, photo and art gallery, scene access (8 chapters), languages: English title cards and music (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: none




Okay kids. Gather 'round, because it's film school time, with professor Todd Doogan. I is gonna school you all on an import aspect of film: the silent black and white feature.

Let's crack open those last few words in the above sentence: silent, black and white. Put them together and you get a genre of film that ruled cinemas until the late-1920s. But be very careful, because those words are very misleading when applied to silent black and white cinema. You see, these films were never meant to be viewed silently and they weren't truly black and white. Those are important things to consider when you go out to pick up Elite Entertainment's newest DVD, The Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema. Or, wait -- better put, they're things to consider NOT buying this set for.

When I heard that Elite was putting out this set, I first wondered, "Why?" I mean, Image has already released two of these films, in pretty much definitive form, overseen by silent film expert David Shepard. So what's the need for additional studies of these genius films? My first counter thought, was that if Vini Bancalari, currently the big guy over at Elite, and one of the saviors of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead was doing it, he must have something special up his sleeve. Right? Well, having just viewed them, I can tell you now, there's absolutely nothing up Elite's sleeve. And the simple fact that these DVDs are out, make me a bit unsettled. I'm going to try and do this without becoming too passionate. The only way I can do this issue justice is by breaking it down film by film. This set includes three films on two discs: Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Der Golem (1920).

Nosferatu

Nosferatu is probably one of the richest and most visually satisfying films ever made before 1929. Admittedly, it's not the most inspiring film ever made in terms of story structure. The fact that it's an unauthorized and plagiarized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula doesn't help it. But anyone who has seen this film has to admit that seeing the first time Count Orlock comes shimmying out into the open air from his castle gate sends goose bumps across your skin.

If you know Dracula, you know how this story unfolds. In the film, young Jonathan Hutter leaves behind his new bride (Ellen), trekking to Transylvania to bring deeds to Count Orlock (Max Schreck) for property just purchased in Germany. While there, Hutter makes the shocking discovery that Orlock is a vampire, hell-bent on returning to Hutter's home village of Wisburg and turning it into an open graveyard. One truly disturbing ocean journey later, Orlock arrives into town doing what he needs to do and unleashes a massive plague.

Character names have been changed to keep the estate of Stoker off the trail (which didn't work and all known prints of the film and the original camera negative were destroyed under court order by Stoker's estate). Of course, a print survived and as legend has it, Bela Lugosi himself is the guy who saved it, leaving it behind to be found in his home after his death. Although that's just legend and is probably untrue, who cares (it still sounds cool). Regardless of how this film remains with us, it remains with us. And we're all better film fans for it. This is one of the crowning achievements of film history -- a film every student of cinema has seen, salivated over and studied down to the knowledge of what paintings inspired specific shots in the film. You really can't call yourself a cinemaphile unless you've seen Nosferatu.

What makes this film so important for film fans, is the incredible visuals created by director F.W. Murnau and art director Albin Grau. Structured around natural landscapes, Murnau makes each and every frame look like a painting. Every aspect of this film is incredible, when you consider its age and the limited technical capabilities of the crew. Images like Orlock rising from his coffin and strutting around on the deck of the ship like a spider (with ropes as his web) are truly jaw-dropping. I've loved this film ever since I first saw it on PBS as a kid.

For those not in the know, there are two versions of this film currently on DVD. One is collected here in this set from Elite, while Image and Blackhawk Films put the other version out (and I personally feel that the Image disc blows this version out of the water). This Elite version is a straight black and white transfer, culled from what looks to be a 1960s or 1970s theatrical print. It translates all the title cards and titles to show that this film is actually Dracula, which isn't quite fair. We should allow this film its own historical significance, and let it be the story of Count Orlock and not Dracula, whatever the original story source was. That's a minor nit to pick, and hardly the major fault of this transfer, because it really isn't Elite's problem that the theatrical distributor changed the titles.

But Nosferatu, like all films, should be shown as it was originally intended. Color tints are one missing aspect of this version and they help differentiate between night and day shots. When I said earlier that old black and white films were seldom black and white, this is what I meant. Right after the processing stage, the films were run through colored dyes to show different light sources (either that, or the film was processed onto raw colored stock). Yellows were for daylight, blues were night and a washed out greenish-yellow usually showed indoor lighting. Considering that this is a story about a vampire, it's important to know day for night. But in this version, everything is a straight black and white. According to the notes on the box, Elite used a positive print found in Germany, with an optical soundtrack attached. So if there were no dyes, either they had faded out or the original distributor of this version didn't process it.

On its own, this version's picture quality is actually pretty good for what it is -- an untinted, sped up silent film. I say sped up, because the timing is a little off (giving it that slight "jerky" quality that people think of when they think of silent film). That's because this film was transferred at "sound speed", which is 24 frames a second. But this film SHOULD have been presented at somewhere between 19 and 20 frames a second, like that of the Image version. The attached soundtrack should have been chucked out, because it just speeds the film up. If you have to transfer the film at sound speed, and the film was ill-timed in the first place, then you're not really showing the film as it was originally intended, are you? Consider the first time we see Ellen Hutter (Mina). The scene comes across as almost cartoonish - especially with the music used. The music is as jerky as the film, because it was written for the film at this increased film speed.

This disc also features a slightly tighter frame than the Image version. The Image disc has its own faults, but I'll still take that version over this one any day. As the Image version is still available, I'd say don't waste your time on this new one -- that's my job. I would just highly recommend to anyone to pick up the Image version instead.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

"You MUST become Caligari!"

Sitting on a park bench, two men are talking about the darker parts of their lives. The younger man eyes a lady in white, and as she wanders by, he comments to his companion that she is his fiancée. He then begins to unspool his own life's tale of woe. This tale involves a mad carnival performer, his somnambulist companion and a twisted murder mystery. When it's all said and done, what you are left with is one of the greatest silent films ever made.

What sets this film apart from others, is the incredible design work involved. All of the sets, costumes and make-up were hand painted. This became the first film to utilize the Expressionistic art movement. Painted by artist Hermann Warm, the design is some of the best ever featured in film -- it's an inspiration for many films to this day. Each shaft of light and crack of shadow is painted in jarring angles and design. The story side isn't too shabby either. The film sucks you right in, and doesn't let go -- even after its jarring finale. And there's a neat little twist ending that some might see a mile away, but others might not. It's an incredibly well made film that deserves the attention it claims.

All right, so the Elite version of this one actually pisses me off. Anyone who loves this film knows one thing. There's an annoying black line going across the top of the film. This was a defect in the original source negative and no one can get rid of it. Fans of this film just shrug and acknowledge it as a part of the film. In this version, which is probably circa 1940s or 50s, they crop the line, bringing everything into a much tighter view - lopping off the top portion of the picture. That's really the only thing I need to tell you when it comes to not buying this set. That's enough to keep your money. The notes state that the source itself was a 16mm reduction print from 35mm. What you get with a reduction print, is a quality and resolution drop to about 35% of the original. This ends up making the film look even worse that it should for its age.

Image has a version of this film available on DVD, that not only keeps the line and the original framing, but it also retains the colored tints of the film -- an aspect that the Elite version again neglects to acknowledge. The Elite version itself is a contrasty black and white. It looks okay for what it is, but held up next to Image's version, you just get yourself PO'ed. Let me say that I don't blame Elite for not color tinting these films -- it's not their fault that the prints they used don't have the original tints. But knowing that a version already exists on DVD that presents the films correctly, they should have thought better than to release this. Again, I say go get the version that does the film justice.

Der Golem

Against a starry sky, Rabbi Lowe summons an ancient demon named Astaroth to bring a clay man to life, in the hope of protecting his people from an evil emperor. But what begins as a good idea slowly turns bad, when the black magic used to create the clay man turns him on his creator. Filled with some impressive in-camera special effects and very good acting, Der Golem (aka The Golem) is a pretty powerful film. It's also pretty influential. Most every aspect of this film can be seen reflected in the 1931 version of Frankenstein, from the character design (platform shoes anyone?) to original story aspects (like a little girl who instead of flowers, offers an apple). Although to be fair, all three of the films in this collection were greatly influential to Whale's later film vision in their own right. This set could have easily been called The Films That Inspired Every Aspect of James Whale's Frankenstein.

The biggest crime on this Elite version of Der Golem is the lack of a soundtrack. This is a film that actually had a specific score written for it at one time, but it's long been considered lost. That's fine and dandy, but a film as character driven as this needs to have a soundtrack. It helps to draw you in and keep you focused. It's very hard to watch a film without sound.

In the days of "silent" film, a live score was often played by an organist or pianist in the theater, which served two purposes. First, it made the film that more enjoyable. The player would either play contemporary music, music built around the time of the film or original music sent with the print. This is why I say that silent films weren't presented silently. For Elite to not give us a soundtrack because they couldn't find the original is just silly. They could easily have applied anything from period public domain music, crickets or their patented Distort-O (soon to be heard on their Drive-In classics). Anything would have been better than a literally silent film. Luckily, you can play your own music while watching the film, which you're going to have to do in order to follow the film. It's pretty hard, in this day and age of MTV-honed attention spans, to focus on washed out images without sound and gain anything from them.

The other reason for music, by the way, was to alert the projectionist on different film speeds. Silent films were hand cranked when shot, so that the cameraman could "control" the drama or comedy of a film. Typically, comedies were shot faster than a drama so as to capture funny little movements better. Chaplin did this, and capitalized on it tremendously. Watch an old Keystone cops short and you'll see this. But during the running of the print, the speeds might jump up and down -- so the organ/piano player would play a more livelier tune to alert the projectionist that a change was coming. Neat, no?

Here we have another reduction print of a very high-contrast, washed out print. Some parts of this film are so bad, that all you end up seeing is eyes and teeth. And shadow detail? Forget it. But, I have to admit that this is (for now at least) the only way we're going to have this film on DVD. Is this the best Der Golem is ever going to look? I certainly hope to Kubrick it's not. But I have no idea -- I've never seen a print of this film. At this point in film history, we're lucky to have it in any form, because this could very easily have been lost, like the other two versions made by director Paul Wegener prior to this one.

Films this old have to be looked at in a different light, and so it's a little more mandatory to cut films in this condition some slack. The reason I'm not giving this version of Nosferatu and Caligari some leeway, is that far superior versions already exist on laserdisc and DVD. Der Golem, on the other hand, exists only in this set.

The Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema comes in a double disc set and is nicely packaged. Inside, you will find a very nice liner notes booklet and some photographs (which are ironically tinted). This is a good read, and is one of the better parts of this DVD edition. The set also contains art galleries on the discs, with photos and poster reproductions. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari disc also contains the last remaining portion of Caligari director Robert Wiene's Genuine (written by Caligari scribe Carl Mayer). It's a pretty freaky snippet, but sadly, it's presented without music. The Caligari disc from Image also includes this (with music), although both are pretty much in the same condition.

By the way, let me just add that if you're hungering for a little more information on silent horror films, check on a very good book written by Roy Kinnard, called Horror in Silent Films: A Filmography, 1896 - 1929. It's published by McFarland & Company and you can purchase it via this link at Amazon. It's a very well researched look at silent films and how they came to create the horror genre. Basically, it's a complete listing of all of the silent films that had fantastical or straight horrific bends (although the horror genre wasn't created until Whale took his influences and formed Frankenstein), with running times, cast and crew listings and well-written notes on some of the more important ones. It's a great book, deserving to be on the shelf of any silent or horror film fan.

As famed film preservationist Robert Harris says, "Garbage begets garbage." It's a shame that the DVD world gets stuck with this set, just so they can get Der Golem (even if it looks and "sounds" horrible). The truth is, if you're used to bargain basement videotapes, you can go ahead and replace your videos with these DVDs. But really, who cares about that? We're talking about DVD, and we expect more and better quality. Film is all the world's shared heritage, and it's up to the fans to help preserve and support the endeavors. Every day another film is lost to history, and hopefully through our shared love and support, we might be able to protect more them. DVD is a good step in the right direction, but when it's all over, film preservation should be paramount.

All right, I'm off my soapbox. Class is dismissed. For extra credit, check out the interview Elite's head honcho Vini Bancalari gave over at the great horror fanboy site DVD Unleashed. Use the above information I gave you and apply it to Vini's comments about this Masterworks disc. I'll help you with one: "We had the negative to Caligari. There's no tint there."

And in the meantime, go out and pick up the Image versions of Caligari and Nosferatu. They're wonderful versions of some wonderful films. Hopefully, someone who knows exactly how to care for a silent film will be able to find some good source prints of Der Golem, and we might see a properly restored edition on DVD (so we won't have to settle for this one).

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




E-mail the Bits!


Don't #!@$ with the Monkey! Site designed for 800 x 600 resolution, using 16M colors and .gif 89a animation.
© 1997-2002 The Digital Bits, Inc., All Rights Reserved.
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com