The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: German Expressionism – Visually and Thematically


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Directed by Robert Weine

: German Expressionism – visually and thematically

Throughout the world film history, It is able to say that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is one of the most regarding films during the European Avant-Garde current that influence and inspire many films in the following generation, especially in the “film noir” and “horror” genre in which both obviously demonstrate the duality of human’s inner or subconscious mind that often stands ambiguously between bright and dark side. This master-piece work of Robert Weine, German film director, is the great example of a film which perfectly adapts the artistic elements into its visualisation in order to create the strange fictional world and to scribble the thematic message in the audience’s heart during the film screening.

As globally wide-known, this film had been labelled as a film which represented the artistic style of German Expressionist movement in the early period. This art movement was occurring in Germany during the 1920s after German armed forces had been defeated in the World War I and German nation had been controlled under the American government. In that era, German citizens were widely traumatised to face the truth about their domestic economic depression, American cultural colonization and lastly invaded national politics. Seemingly, the reality was very intolerable for these German people whose nation once used to be considered as the world’s major country, therefore, they turned themselves into arts, especially these narrating arts such as theatres and films to enjoy the fictional world as an imaginary escapism which they used for neglecting that tormented reality.

According to that era, Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist, had discovered the theory about the psychoanalysis which mainly focuses on the power of human’s inner mind which was subsequently spread and accepted throughout the world, German Expressionist arts were also examining unconsciousness forces which silently motivate men to do something which are unpredictably turning into good or evil side. The same way as this film, Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari followed the influence of this psychological theory by doubting how terrifying human may become under the shadow of insanity or unconsciousness. We can clearly see that through the entire film the director intensively put all visual elements to persuade us, the audience, into the world of insanity to enlighten the theme which he wants us to understand. Regarding to the subconscious power, Weine wanted the audience to see the uncertainty of human’s mind which is far deeper than our perceptions are able to be predicted or understood clearly. Therefore, there are some aspects in this film which significantly involves with the idea of mind control, dual identity and psychological terror.

The most outstanding element of this German silent film is its visualisation which can be departed into two sections: artistic element and narrative element. These marvellously designed visual elements are used as important parts in proceeding the narrativity of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and in the same time also driving audience’s thematic involvement during watching this film.

Without a doubt, the first thing that audience in that era and also in these days must notice at the first glance after seeing this film is certainly its artistic elements. It is able to say that art direction of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is very outstanding and impressive not only in that period of making but also for all time.

First of all, audience must be stunned by distorted and unnatural mise-en-scènes which were distinctively presented as one of the characters in this film. The director decided to use the settings which are designated to be a representation of a German rural town where this narrated story has taken place in a different style as normally used in that realist period, we can obviously see that all settings are all presented through painting arts. Not only the man-made construction such as houses, walls or roads but also the natural scenic landscapes like hills, these settings are constructed or simulated in the same way as they often do with the theatre. While other film directors in that moment were trying to find a way to capture the reality into their films, Weine chose his path differently by using these painted settings and added some distorted angles on the scene in asymmetrical and distorting style for examples; in reality building’s walls are supposed to be perfectly upright on earth surface, but in this film we can see all of walls or houses were constructed in a strange and slanting composition, or otherwise we may see the scene which Cesare carry a girl upwards the illustrated setting of hill, that hill was also an example of the disharmonious composition in artistic setting by which the director intended to lead the audience to the theme of human’s mentally uncertainty.

As well as settings, scenic properties, such as doorway, windows, mirrors or chairs, using in the scene were also created asymmetrically, for instant, those chairs and tables which were set in the scene with civil officers or town clerks are unnaturally tall, while the doors or stairways used by characters in film are such unrealistically distorted. Moreover, light is also projected through painting in this film, to draw the highlight in the scene. In every scene, besides using paint on the walls, Weine also designed to paint the floor and some of the wall of the setting in high-coloured tone to differentiate the accentuated light from the normal one on which the main character may stand in scene in order to keep the attraction of the audience focusing on that highlighted position.

The film lighting usage, especially the key and tone of light, is definitely reflecting the ambiguity of men’s inner mind. Most of the scenes on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari were projected in low-key lighting together with the using of sharp tone lighting technique, creating the exaggerated contrast between light and shadow which is called optionally as “Chiaoscuro technique”. Throughout the film we can often see that the protagonists such as Dr Caligari, Cesare, or the narrator are mostly screened by sharpened shadows on their face which may represent their dark side identity or malicious inner mind of a man.

So we can see these unnaturally composited mise-en-scènes were frequently projected through distorted artistic elements. Weine intended to signify literally these visual presentations to the anxiety, emotional disharmony or uncertainly terror of protagonists or those characters who take the role in the scene which were set in every scene symbolically to stream the expression of inner unstated mind of protagonists and other characters in film, and also to tell the message of story to the audience indirectly.

Secondly, It is noticeable that narrative element of this moving image is very interesting, especially the narrativity. In this film, the director intends to tell the story about the Dr. Caligari, the mad scientist and his cruel somnambulist fellow, Cesare, whose action has involved in homicide cases in a small unnamed town in Germany. The story has been told entirely to us since the beginning through the flashback point of view of a young man, who sits and tells to terrifying story to his companion for entire the story. The director wished to slowly persuade us, the audience, to follow his mythical tale, surprisingly, he twisted its end by revealing that all this story are narrated through the point of view of an insane patient who has his medical treatment in an asylum and fantasise that his psychiatrist is the mad Dr Caligari, and so do other characters, all of these people taking their part in the film such as Cesare or the girl are mental disorder patients who live in the same asylum as his.

For inventing the distorted world of reality, in characterisation, the director intentionally created the story via the perspective of a mad man, so all the characters were designed to have distorted behaviours, as well as their acting which seem really exaggerating, unrealistic and irrational like the way of insane mind functions in general. On the contrary, we never feel like being disturbed by these unnatural characterisations, although they may perform their acting very strangely. No matter how weird they and their world really are, we will keep following the story and getting ourselves involved into the film without tuning out. By this spectacular way of creating its narrated story, it can be assumed that the director wanted to show the fact that we, the audience, may never perceive the truth easily whether the person to whom we are talking is normal-minded or not, and how terrifying abnormal minds exactly are. This psychological truth alienates us from the film and presents a self-reflection which designates ourselves to re-examine and question our mental condition, in the same time to warn us about normal-look people whom we meet on the street or neighbouring houses in the real world, these people may surprisingly associate with insanity and be harmful or dangerous in any unexpectedly occasions.

Finally, from all these examples of visual style used in the film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, it is able to say that this German Expressionist film has proved itself that besides demonstrating the reality, this film can also present efficiently distinctive expressionist visual style by which character’s internal state of mind is literally represented, relating to the illustrated theme of madness, insanity and human’s subconscious. Its complex and stylised visualisation exactly represents the emotional disharmony of the characters, as well as human beings in general, and deliver the emphasised thematic message to the audience at the end of the film. These are obviously the evidences that present how Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari functions visually through the perception of the audience and also explains the relationship between its theme and its visual style which are presented mutually throughout the film.

Anybody is able to be Dr. Caligari, himself, why not ?


About kolokoz

Postgrad in Film Studies, currently living a dream in Bangkok. Interested in Film, Theatre, Music and Newcastle United.
This entry was posted in Movie. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: German Expressionism – Visually and Thematically

  1. eminy says:

    I didn’t read all your article because it’s really long

    This movie, I like its style and the scene looks distort from real

  2. Pingback: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) Independent Study in World Cinema | The Unaffiliated Critic

  3. Thanks for your post! Really helped me out with university work.

  4. Pingback: 500 Movie Challenge: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari | The Unaccomplished Lady

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s