Kino has long been the go-to company for first-rate DVD editions of classic films, with a special emphasis on the silent era. Recently, they have released a box set that is something of a wet dream for fans of vintage, hard-to-find cinema: the German Expressionism Collection.
There are four films here, and the first is the most inevitable: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which is where expressionism first arrives on film. I doubt readers of this column need an introduction to this tale of a mad hypnotist and the homicidal somnambulist under his spell, and anyone interested in this set will no doubt already own a copy of this film. This is a nice print, with two soundtracks (a new one, and a contemporary one). One of the extras on the disc is a 43-minute version of director Robert Wiene’s 1920 Genuine: The Tale of a Vampire. Though this is still a condensation, it is a huge step up from Image’s 1996 edition which offered only a 3-minute excerpt of that film.
The other offerings are much rarer. The Hands of Orlac (1924) is a classic thriller, which would be remade a number of times, most famously with Peter Lorre and Colin Clive as Mad Love (1935). Here Conrad Veidt (the somnambulist from Caligari) is the concert pianist whose hands, destroyed in a train crash, are replaced with those of a murderer, and before long he suspects that his new limbs have a mind of their own.
The other two are further removed from the horror genre, but are still fine examples of full-on expressionism. Warning Shadows (1923) has long been a tantalizing title for fans, and this is the first time it arrives on DVD on these shores. It’s basically a tale of domestic jealousy, and similarly Secrets of a Soul (1926) has a pretty banal resolution (even if its protagonist is mysteriously driven to want to murder his wife). But the visuals make this important viewing, as well as the experimental nature of the projects. Warning Shadows deliberately dispenses with intertitles – so we are talking entirely visual storytelling here. Secrets of a Soul, meanwhile, marks a very early cinematic attempt to engage seriously with the ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis, which are an obvious match with expressionism’s project of providing a visual representation of the interior life of the characters.
In sum, then, while not every viewer will be equally taken with all of the films on offer, the importance of this set is hard to overstate, giving us a chance to see films too long unavailable (in an decent form) on the North American market, as well as a first-rate presentation of a reliable standard. Not to be missed on any account.