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 ?

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Time: Becoming Selfless

Time (2006)

Directed by Kim Ki-Duk

: Becoming selfless, a new concept of plastic surgery

As many people say…“Time” can bring men or women something they love.

On contrary…“Time” can also separate them apart.

However, how it is going to be when a woman decides to let the plastic surgery cease the time from stealing her love, her life and her everything.

Many film-watchers in Thailand seems to know and to understand very well about Korean films, according to their cultural current which has been sweeping through Thailand and other continents during these recent years. But, surprisingly, the works of Kim Ki-Duk, the world-famous Korean filmmaker, are rarely known for Thai people. Only a small group of Thai Indy film goers who recognize this Korean director and his works.

It is able to say that Kim Ki-Duk is one of the contemporary filmmakers whose works have been highly praised by the film critics in the international level for the strong and manful content, which reflects the interesting life of real Korean people in elaborated story-telling, the same method as many artists do in the brilliant oil-color painting.

His style of making films is very outstanding from other Korean filmmakers by eliminating and escaping the same-old rules of filming in both content and technique, especially in order to reflect the morality and the dark side of contemporary people living in Korea in a twisted realist way.

In many of his films, the characters are normally designed to be a fringer who lives in the edge of the society such as a Buddhist monk who tries to banish himself out off the Karma cycle in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), a young strayed motorcycle-rider who runs into a desperate housewife in 3-Iron (2004), an old man who waits to marry with his adopted girl in The Bow (2005), etc. These designed characters are all representing humans who have their own identities in Korean society which Kim Ki-duk often uses them to describe his social-criticized opinions through their point-of-view. Consequently, Kim’s works are totally realistic and fascinating, but, in the same time, give the audience the sense of despair and misery.

The film called Shi Gan or Time, in English title, is one of the recent works of this talented filmmaker, launched in the year 2006. The first difference from Kim Ki-Duk’s past works that many film-watchers must notice is dialogue; it seems very surprised that in this film there are more dialogues which characters are talking to each other than usual. Normally, in his works, dialogue is not necessary, story will be narrated through acting more than speaking, so his films is quite silent. Strangely, we can see the two protagonists yelling at each other in this film for many times.

Second noticeable difference of this film is its protagonists are middle-class people who have house, money and almost luxurious life. As we all know that in his past works, Kim’s main characters are mostly in the lower-class society or in the dark side of city like a police-runaway criminal who dodges himself in a floating house in The Isle (2000), a pimp who drags his beloved woman to work as a prostitute at his whorehouse in Bad Guy (2001) or a girl who sacrifices herself having sex with middle-aged men to redeem them in Samaritan Girl (2004), these characters are all presented the life of working-class or lower-class people. Surprisingly, in Time Kim chooses to tell the story of well-living people who have enough money to spend in daily coffee drinks, luxurious flats or, absolutely, plastic surgery fees.

This film tells the story of a young Korean couple, Ji-woo and Seh-hee, who live together for a period of time, film begins with horrifying footages of plastic surgery and then shows the appearing of Seh-hee, running into an marked-woman; assumable that she has recently had surgery, and breaking the woman’s picture frame. Seh-hee says sorry to her and brings that frame, finding some shop around that corner to fix it. However, when she returns that woman has already gone. After that Seh-hee goes to a small coffee shop to meet Ji-woo. But at the moment she is stepping in that place, she sees her boyfriend gazing passionately on a beautiful waitress, Seh-hee feels jealous and they finally end their day with the big dispute.

Afterwards, she is intensely nervous that her lover is bored and going to stop loving herself. With her love, she decides to run away silently from his life without telling or leaving him anything, and totally changes her identity by using a plastic surgery to turn all her face and body into a new one, as we all can understand when she tells the surgeon that she does not want to be pretty, she just wants to be a new person with her new identity. With this operated appearance, she can reenter the life of her lover, Ji-woo, in the second time as his new woman by using this newly-changed identity.

During the period of her disappearance, Ji-woo, who knows nothing about the reason of her leaving, is living alone miserably and desperately with his inner dilemma; to wait hopelessly for the day that his lover to return or to stop waiting and  commencing his new love with any women.

After leaving for six months, Seh-hee returns and tries to reenter the man’s life with her new face, with her new name See-hee. Ironically, Ji-woo does not notice at all that the new-coming woman is the same person as his vanishing lover. Although Seh-hee succeeds reentering his life as See-hee, sadly she must endure the most terrible pain that he never forgets Seh-hee or herself in the past. She tries to test his love with her new identity by sending him a letter which informs him that Seh-hee is going to come back soon, unfortunately Ji-woo tells See-hee that he must leave her now because Seh-hee is returning. Undoubtedly, she cannot stand this decision and ends up their meal with the same-old routine, the big dispute which uses ironically the same dialogue as their previous dispute. Things are turned upside down from what she has been expecting for.

To cease him from leaving herself, one day she decides to tell him the truth by making an appointment with him at the coffee shop. In that day she wears a paper mask which presents the face of Seh-hee, herself before the surgery, to meet Ji-woo, claiming that she is not his ex-girlfriend, but in fact she is his new one, which is totally awkward because both of them are same person. After getting the whole story, he is very angry that he was all the time played as a fool by her; he suddenly flees the scene, leaving Seh-hee only his last sentence “you’re very frightening”. Absurdly, Ji-woo decides to turn himself to the same surgery clinic which his woman has come before, and leaves her nothing but misery for a very long period, the same way as what he was treated. Later he informs her that he will come back with his new appearance and figure, during this moment of waiting, See-hee is totally paranoid that Ji-woo can be any men who come into her life, but as soon as she notice one man who always sneaks at her is maybe Ji-woo with new operated face, this man is terribly killed in front of her by a car accident. Without knowing exactly that he is Ji-woo or not, See-hee is totally shocked and turns herself into the surgery cycle again trying to fix mental problems by rechanging her identity.

It is quiet obvious to consider the film Time as a beautiful poem which the poet named Kim Ki-Duk has composed harmonically to demonstrate his thought and message about the beauty and the plastic surgery which is one of the most regarded issues during these years in Korea and other countries around the world. We can see that nowadays the number of women, as well as men, who use this medical innovation only to build them the thing called “beauty”, has been increasing dramatically. In order to provide them the new “identity”, these people are parading to see the surgeon and have their body plastic surgery operated by which they can start their living with the new given figure. Korea, Kim’s home country, is very well-known globally for its top-ranked reputation in plastic surgery; it seems to be very normal for Korean people to have their body or face fixed by the knife of surgeons. We can evidently notice that lots of Korean celebrities, men and women in varied ages, willingly admit that his or her look and beauty are surgically created. Therefore Kim Ki-Duk makes this film to question people around the world if this social value of surgery is appropriate or not and what the beauty really is.

Through this film, the director mainly presents his opinion that plastic surgery is like shell or mask which people use to cover their true identity. In the mean time if we consider that human’s true identity is consisted of body and mind which we all have been naturally born with, changing or distorting one of these elements is equal as breaking the identity formation. According to this logic, plastic surgery, which humans use to hide or to eliminate their dislike part of body, is also destroying the formation. This means people are breaking their own identity and become selfless or non-self, which was once presented in the Buddha’s preaching as one of Three Marks of Existence called “anatta”. So they have to live selflessly, waiting the day they finally gain the new and satisfactory identity.

We can apparently notice in this film that through the story the protagonists always involve with their and other’s identity. They frequently ask other people about who they really are or what the true self exactly is, in addition, others are designed to be nameless characters by following their social role such as father, doctor, nurse, hostage, etc., all of these characters are intentionally neglected the names, no matter how important role they have in the film. Because the director aims to point out that nowadays names are invented to present people’s unique identity or to use as a tool for specifying each person, so it is able to consider it as a mask or a bark. Without this invention, we and our identities are totally invisible and finally become nobody in this world. Consequently, we might consider ourselves without name as only nobody whom we can never perceive the true identity by using only human’s perception until they decide to unmask themselves.

As I mentioned in previous paragraphs, the word “identity”, especially for people in this era, is depending on their complacency or what they satisfy. If we pay closely attention to this, it is able to say that in fact human’s pleasure or satisfaction is not certain, it can change, transform and regenerate for all the times of our lives. Kim Ki-Duk probably criticizes that humans are always looking for the thing they believe they satisfy living with it. Though in reality they get their satisfied stuff, there will always be the more satisfied things appearing in their mind, so they must go out finding to process that thing again. This process will, of course, keep repeating itself and turns into the perpetual cycle of self-satisfaction seeking.

The plastic surgery for changing natural identity is also the same as that cycle, men or women do not like their figure or appearance, they will easily change or reshape them. This means they can also change their natural identity by surgical operation, once they decide to change one part of their body, there will be more operated parts following later. This might lead these people the situation that they cannot describe their true self or identity and finally become nobody or selfless.

Finally, we can approximately conclude that the director wants to satire the present medical innovation, especially the plastic surgery, which often drags men and women into the cycle of anatta, deceives them with the artificial beauty and steals their own identity.

Besides criticizing harshly and directly to social value or culture through his films, there is one more special aspect like using symbolism which we always notice in the work of this Korean director. Kim Ki-Duk often uses symbolic elements presenting theme or messages to describe the audience additional contexts of the narrated story by using this clever method in every film he made. While the audiences are watching the film and perceiving beautiful moving images, they can symbolically read these images and transcribe them for significance to understand more about hidden messages that the director wants to tell though the story.

In Time, besides raising up the story of human’s appearance and identity which is easily changed by plastic surgery, another issue that he symbolically presents is an impermanence of life or “anicca”, one doctrine of Three Marks of Existence. The most noticeable symbol he uses is the sculpture garden which we obviously notice from the poster to the film’s last scene. This sculpture garden is a place where these people can enjoy watching or photographing the beach decorated by human’s organ-shaped sculptures such as heads, bodies, hands or legs etc. It seems to take a ferry boat crossing the sea to arrive at an island and then drive to a beach to reach the sculpture garden. In the film, we can see that both Ji-woo and Seh-hee, or after surgery See-hee, always relate their lives with this scenic place. They often took photo together with the sculptures, especially hands-shaped ladder sculpture, during their period before and after surgery.

These sculptures are symbols signifying the human beauty which is natural uncertainty or impermanence that can be changed, transformed or crumbled through every time we spent in our lives. Even though we try to find medical remedies to solve these problems; to maintain our youth or beauty, eventually we must unavoidably face them. The same way as these organ-shaped sculptures exactly is, although they seem to be very beautiful and artistic in normal time, as the time that sea level has been rising higher, they must be under water. No matter how beautiful they are, their beauty will be covered and invisible under water, like beauty of our appearance or figure which is totally unimportant and worthless when the death has approached nearby.

All characters are actually bedazzled and lost by these invented things like seeking for artificial beauty or new identity by hands of surgeons, as we can see since the beginning of the films till the final scene and everything keeps repeating itself as the cycle. While in film Ji-woo and See-hee are addicted to transforming their identity, many people in real world are still looking for the exit door from the cycle of being selfless or nobody.

Another outstanding aspect that we can notice in this film is time. In this work of Kim Ki-Duk, time, as its title, is significantly important, not only in the title of the film but also many parts the director indirectly mentions about time such as the clock-ticking sound. Even Seh-hee and Ji-woo are obviously concerning about time in their lives, as we can hear she says in the film that “I’m afraid of time because it has a power to change all the things”, that is why Kim Ki-Duk tries to make fun with these characters by putting them into a period of moment where time has been frozen and stopped at one point according to the cycle where anything goes repeatedly and always comes back at the same point.

Therefore it is possible to assume that when the time restarts itself at the beginning of the cycle for one more time, there is still an opportunity for Seh-hee or See-hee to fix her problem and restart her life again. But in fact this can only be in her dream because although she has erased her old identity and replaced the new one, her story must estimably end at the same point as it always does due to her habit will never change.  So lastly it looks impossible for both of them, Seh-hee and Ji-woo, to return living together. In the story, Seh-hee is always afraid that time will break their relationship, but as we all know that she has started breaking it by herself since the day she stepped into a plastic surgery clinic and let the surgeon operate and change her figure identity. Like we see at the end of the film that ladder sculpture which was formally consisted of two sides of hands, in this scene when the sea level has been rising, in this time we can only see that sculpture is changed and turned into one hand ladder. This may represent to the relationship of these protagonists that is torn apart when there is another thing cover their appearance, their figure and absolutely their identity.

At the end of the film, we can see the director intend to replay the same footage as the beginning, which See-hee, or actually Seh-hee, runs into a masked-woman after that woman walks out of the surgery clinic. But in this time, See-hee, herself, is the marked-woman, walking out of the clinic and being hit by a hasty woman who walks on the street. These two scenes, the beginning and the end, are definitely the same. So this scene is like a parody accentuating that everything she, Seh-hee, has done since the beginning is committing or sticking her to the cycle that she cannot escape according to the last part of the film, we can see See-hee tells the surgeon, after he asking if she wants her old appearance, she neglects his offer and insists the surgeon to give her the new identity.

Buddha once taught his followers about the doctrine called Three Marks of Existence or three common characters which all elements in the world must encounter in life from their birth till their death, consisted of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and selfless (anatta). If anything is destined to follow this path and end at the same destination; death, it seems worthless to get tired, suffered and lost in this cycle of identity-seeking. Because after our death everyone will finally become selfless, our surgery operated body may be only an empty vessel which has no name, no remark or no fame which artificial beauty is still not necessary at all for us.

For all this, it is able to consider medical cosmetic as plastic surgery is only a wasteful treatment for us, human beings. We must not get ourselves addicted to it and not forget our natural-born identity. However, for those people who start changing or erasing their own identity and also those who start thinking about this process, we are really sorry for you and. in final, may welcome you all to the eternal cycle of becoming selfless that once you step in this loop, it is very difficult to get yourself out of it, like Seh-hee did in the film.

“I’m afraid of time because it has a power to change all the things” – Seh-hee

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