On German Expressionism and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

Expressionism is an art movement and form of modernism that is not just confined to film; it can be found in architecture, poetry, painting, literature, theatre, dance, music and film. Expressionist artists such as Braque, Balla and Munch sought to manipulate form instead of analysing it in the way that the Impressionist painters such as Monet and others chose to. Through this manipulation of form feelings were expressed The feeling: mostly post-World War One despair and fear of the effects the Treaty of Versailles would have. During the 1910’s and 20’s expressionist images and styles were used frequently in German Cinema to communicate inner turmoil and despair especially after the war ended in 1918. Irregular set design was used to create warped, twisted versions of the world. German Expressionism in film utilised: printed shadows, heavy contrast of light and dark, extensive use of high and low angle shots to represent societal power dynamics, and oblique angles and distorted geometric shapes were used to reflect inner turmoil. These techniques were later incorporated into Hollywood films such as those of the Horror and Film Noir genres. When European filmmakers fled the Nazi regime in Germany they brought their style with them. At the time; these surrealist techniques would have been especially effective because cinema was mainly used to try and mirror real life e.g. Russian Montage Cinema; in the 1920’s Soviet cinema was highly focussed on absolute realism.

          “Before Hollywood’s golden age, German expressionist film was arguably the most important cinematic movement in the medium’s history. These ‘symphonies of… iridescent movement’ of Weimar cinema provide some of cinema’s most iconic images, and its vivid contrasts and dark spaces constitute a major influence on Hollywood classics such as Citizen Kane (1941) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).” (Roberts, 2008, intro)

Even today, contemporary directors such as Tim Burton (Batman Returns 1992, Edward Scissorhands 1990) and Alex Proyas (The Crow 1994, Dark City 1998) continue to be heavily influenced by German Expressionism; even though it was a relatively short movement. Whilst exploring the general themes of German Expressionism, I am going to focus on The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920). Other examples, though, include Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1920) and The Golem (1927).

The Scream. An example of Expressionism in Art.

          The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) tells the story of the insane Doctor Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who he holds captive and hypnotises into committing murders throughout the town of Holstenwall. The story is told via a man named Francis; although it is revealed at the end of the film that Francis is in fact an inmate at an insane asylum which Doctor Caligari is the director of. The town in which the film is set seems to represent Francis’ fantasy, which he has created in order to cope with his situation. Francis’ Freudian wish fulfilment creates an alternate world in Holstenwall, where he did not murder his friend and he can blame the Doctor and Cesare. This reflects German denial after being forced to take the blame for the war.

          The disreputability of authority figures is a theme common in German Expressionism. In The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, The Doctor represents German high society and the German government during World War One, whilst Cesare represents the common man who has been hypnotised and conditioned to kill. Just as German men were sent off to kill by unsympathetic rulers; represented by Caligari. Cesare is a blank slate, completely stripped of his personality and individuality, simply a tool to kill. His dependance on Caligari is so much that he collapses when he wanders too far from his master; ‘like a machine that has run out of fuel’ (Barlow, 1982, p43). The Doctor, as both director of the asylum and Cesare’s master acts as an authority figure, he is also the victim of an authority figure when he is ridiculed by the town clerk when asking for a permit.

          “Caligari and a number of subsequent Weimar movies show an authority figure who is violent and possibly insane. The film thematizes [brutal and irrational authority] both in instances when Caligari is a victim of oppressive authority … and when he himself is the authority” (Brockmann, 2010, p64)

The Doctor’s status as a member of high society is enforced by his title, his attire and his appearance; he wears a top hat and a cloak and is also fat. When compared to the stick thin Cesare, Caligari is a clear caricature of the rich and powerful. Cinematography is also employed in order to portray the two main characters’ social standing. Caligari is filmed from low angles which gives him a looming quality over other characters and making him appear powerful compared to Cesare who is filmed from higher angles; making him appear weaker and less in control. Authority figures are also exaggerated by the mise en scene; for example the town clerk and the policemen sit atop strangely high, impractical chairs; towering above and looking down on any who may seek their help.

The Doctor
Werner Krauss as The Doctor


          Ideas of control are common in German Expressionism. In The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari the idea that a privileged class could rise up and take authority over the state is represented by the way the narrative of the film reasserts the inevitable nature of authoritarian power. The cyclical nature of this inevitability is represented in the film; not only by the story but visually. The spiralling, circular motif visible throughout the film represents the continual nature and inevitability of authoritarian power. Elements of mind control run throughout the narrative especially regarding Cesare. Through contextualisation, the film can be unwrapped. Revealing the psychological state of the German people at the time; who were in despair after the war. Many German soldiers would not even acknowledge they had lost the war and blamed the Kaiser first, then blaming the New Government. Hitler eventually referred to this as The ‘Stab in the Back’ (Cogan, 1995, p26).

          “What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions – those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness.” (Kracauer, 1947, p6)

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari has no doubt gained acclaim since it’s creation nearly a century ago, although, one unavoidable factor in regards to its longevity is the book From Caligari to Hitler by Siegfried Kracauer. He saw German Expressionist films, especially The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, as foreshadowing for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party; equating Caligari’s hypnotism to “Hitler’s ‘manipulation of the soul’” (Kracauer, 1947, p72) . Expressionism is rife when the people are discontented with their circumstance. The anxious, hostile environment that was Germany post-World War One was a breeding ground for expressionist art which serves to explore the emotions by visually representing how something actually feels with less focus on how it actually should look.

          “The expressionist aesthetic in the cinema as well as in other arts, with its formal strategies of interiorization, aims at reappropriating an alienated universe by transforming it into a private, personal vision.” (Silberman, 1995, p20)

          Visual motifs throughout The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari also represent other themes of the film and of German Expressionism in general. Germans were anxious about the ways in which authoritarian power rises, and the horrific environment such an authority could rise in. The vacuum created in the aftermath of WW1 and by the Kaiser’s departure could have been filled by the type of people represented by Doctor Caligari. This environment is brought to life in a jagged, surrealist fashion; reflecting the uncertain mindsets and inner turmoil of the German people, with shadows painted onto the geometric sets and heavy contrast between light and dark, inner turmoil and the duality of man are represented. Claustrophobia, isolation and alienation are represented visually too.The tightly spaced sets and the eponymous cabinet in which Cesare resides were made smaller in order for the characters to take up more room and had elongated shadows painted onto them to achieve the same effect. This claustrophobia and anxiety was heavily induced by the terms of The Treaty of Versailles. The economy was going through hyper-inflation due to the government printing more and more money in order to pay off reparation debts after the war. Along with massive reparation debts, the Treaty of Versailles terms included: losing German land and Colonies to France and Britain and Poland and being forbidden from uniting with Austria again, isolating Germany. Germany also faced restrictions limiting their army, aircraft and navy to small numbers, leaving them to feel vulnerable. “Germany was still going through the indirect consequences of an abortive revolution and the national economy was as unstable as the national frame of mind” (Eisner, 1969, p19).

setdesign caligari
Set Design in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

          Expressionist cinema often focuses on ‘The demonic funfair’ (Coates, 1991, p26). In The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari this features in Francis’ apparent delusion and is the place where Caligari shows Cesare to the world. In the early twentieth century films would often be shown at fairgrounds and were yet to be a respected art form amongst the intellectual bourgeois. This isn’t to say that they did not attend screenings. The fairground represents desire and especially forbidden desire as well as chaos. The ever-spinning carousel is the chaotic alternative to tyrannical rule. The chaotic element of the film is also expressed by the often random nature of the stabbings. Seemingly anyone could be next; reflecting German paranoia and anxiety at the time.

          Blurred lines between reality and delusion appear frequently in German Expressionist Cinema. In The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Francis is shown to be an escaped patient at the end of the film; leading one to believe his account of events has been unreliable. This is supported by the ‘real’ Doctor’s seemingly genuine care and concern for his patient, although this is disputed by Francis and interestingly, the mise en scene does not change. This is supposed to be reality and no longer Francis’ delusion yet the visual cues that imply delusion, e.g the jagged, geometric lines and heavy contrasted shadows, still remain.

          “If the story were just a nightmare, there would be a stylistic separation between scenes of the real world and the dream world, and the narrative would be resolved when the sleeper awoke” (LoBrutto, 2005, p62)

This ambiguity fuels the theme of confusion and insanity that is present throughout the film. Rather than the ending revealing that the whole story was one mad mans delusion, it can be read as revealing that the whole world is in fact mad.

          Multiple personalities, in the film, are present for several characters. Doctor Caligari can be seen to have a few different identities: the seemingly caring asylum director, the maniacal, evil, murdering hypnotist and the legendary, actual Doctor Caligari, with whom he is obsessed with becoming. The character of Francis holds the identity of sane, protagonist of the main narrative in the film alongside what is revealed to be an insane inmate of an asylum. Also, Cesare, whilst murdering under the influence of the Doctor, can also be seen as a sympathetic victim. Visual dualities also exist within Holstenwall: the heavy contrasts of light and dark, black on white appears in the looks of Cesare, Doctor Caligari and Jane. These dualities of character, paired with those of the mise en scene are consistent throughout the whole film, creating a further uncertainty in regards to character and motive.

“Art… reflects the feeling of uneasiness related to this duality… The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari unleashed the power of subjective imagination… the audience partakes directly in the madman’s perception and realises only at the end of the film that it was forced to share his point of view” (Allmer, 2012, p2)

          After World War One, Germany had her land and armed forces stripped, and potentially worst of all, was forced to bear sole responsibility for the entirety of the war. This all led to feelings of isolation, guilt, alienation and confusion in the German people; culminating in the art of German Expressionism. All aspects of which can be found in the nightmarish merry-go-round that is The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The film is not only a prime example of expressionist art techniques that appeared around the 1920’s but also a summary of the feelings of German people at that time; their feelings can be seen in a way that only expressionist art can show. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is cited as being the quintessential piece of German Expressionism; making it, therefore, the perfect candidate to focus on when exploring the themes. It’s legacy as ‘the first horror film’ lives on in almost all horror films today. 

  • Allmer, P (2012). European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press. (Subjectivity Unleashed) 
  • Barlow, J (1982). German Expressionist Film. Indianapolis: Twayne Publishers. 
  • Brockmann, S (2010). A Critical History of German Film. New York: Camden House. 
  • Coates, P (1991). The Gorgon’s Gaze. London: Cambridge University Press. 26.
  • Cogan, D (1995). Life events and visual symptoms of Adolf Hitler. Berlin: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 
  • Eisner, L (1969). The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Los Angeles : University Of California Press. 
  • Kracauer, S (1947). From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological History Of The German Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
  • Roberts, I (2008). German Expressionist Cinema: The World of Light and Shadow. Michigan: Wallflower Press. 
  • Silberman, M (1995). German Cinema: Texts In Context. Michigan: Wayne State University Press. 
  • Vincent LoBrutto (2005). Becoming Film Literate: The Art and Craft of Motion Pictures. Westport, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group. 

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