Seeking an Asylum: Power in Caligari and its Relationship to the Viewer

Seeking an Asylum: Power in Caligari and its Relationship to the Viewer The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is an allegory of the abuses of the older generation of political authorities, who irrationally led younger generations of Germans into WWI (Nestrick 7). The film’s villain Dr. Caligari/ the Director embodies this tyrannical power over the young German population, which is captured in the mise-en-scene. However, his power extends beyond merely what appears before the camera to the control of the camera, the narrative, and the spectatorship. This absolute control runs through the entire film and eventually transforms the audience into patients of an asylum, who grasp for answers and question their own sanity. Caligari first appears within the film walking up the stairs from the carnival in a slow and unstable gate. His white gloves are streaked with black lines, just as the audience later finds his hair to be. An iris/matte shot centers his face in a frame suggesting that he should be focused on, even within this harsh world of German expressionist sets, for it is he that controls this world. The audience gains a glimpse into the depth of Caligari’s power within the town hall. The walls of the hall are streaked with black lines just like Caligari’s gloves and hair, which implies that Caligari is part of the structure of power, a motif that later becomes more substantial when he is discovered to be the director (Whissel lecture). The matching streaked walls also serve to foreshadow the death of the town clerk who treats Caligari as if he were a second-class citizen. Caligari usurps his power by having Cesare murder the clerk. The clerk is the only other strong figure of authority within Francis’ narrative and with him removed, Caligari becomes the only source and holder of massive power (Whissel lecture). Caligari’s manipulative and tyrannical nature is even reflected in the set design. However, Caligari’s wealth of power does not end there, but continues to grow in subtler moments throughout the film. Later in the film, the audience discovers that Caligari is the “Director” of the mental institution. With Caligari, “Director” becomes more than a title, but a way to better understand his power. His relationship with Cesare, the somnambulist, can be looked at in terms of Caligari’s direction of him. In the first scene with Cesare coming out of the cabinet, Caligari directs the somnambulists’ movements, like a puppeteer would his marionette (Nestrick 18). This references the control of the German government that sent soldiers out to fight the war. Caligari’s absolute power as a director comes to fruition when he directs the camera, taking control of the film itself. The Cabinet’s composition of shots relies strongly upon tableaux framing, a theatrical motif, allowing a limited view of the off-screen space and filmic world. Close-ups and medium shots are used to articulate space, but otherwise the camera remains static. However, there is one shot in the entire film in which the camera pans and tracks movement – the moment when Jane ventures to the carnival and meets Dr. Caligari. Caligari invites her into his tent with broad gestures motioning her into his domain. These inviting gestures not only move Jane into the tent, but the camera as well as it tracks their movement. Caligari is not only able to direct people, but the camera, which renders the entire narrative under his sway. If Caligari can control the camera, he controls what the audience sees, in the same manner that he controls what Francis sees and believes. Francis’ narrative constitutes the film’s frame device, which appears to mitigate the film’s critique of power by making the story the ravings of a “madman.” However, the inconsistencies in Francis’ narrative ultimately enhance the film’s overall message of the corrupt and abusive power of the older generation of Germans. Francis’ narrative, although clear, relates information he was not privy to – for instance, the details of Alan’s murder. In the murder scene, the audience encounters a fluid sequence of the murder, which could point to the fact that Francis is actually the murderer. However, it also could be Francis purely creating this brutality, which he did not experience, to persuade his asylum friend of his case against the Director. The most likely option appears to be that Francis’ story is not entirely under his control; it could have been collaborated on in the form of brainwashing. Another instance in the film, which points to this collaboration, occurs when Francis discovers the diary of the Director. Francis’ reading of the diary is crosscut with the Director sleeping. Crosscutting implies simultaneity and there is no possible way for Francis to have constructed this by himself, since he only receives second hand information about the sleeping Director and has never seen the man’s villa. The Director, of course, does know what the villa looks like and what he was doing at the time of Francis’ reading. Therefore, the Director could have fueled Francis’ narrative and perhaps corrupted it to make Francis seem insane while Francis has been at the asylum. The last lines of the film, which come from Caligari, further evidence this interpretation “At last I understand his mania. He thinks that I am that mystic Caligari–! And now I also know how to cure him.” The Director does not tell us how he will cure Francis, which leads to an open, unresolved ending. However, this statement comes within the same iris/matte shot that occurred at the beginning of the entry into Francis’ story, which signals the beginning of a new story told by the Director. After already capturing control within the mind of Francis, the Director now assumes control of the narrative outside of Francis’ mind. He now not only controls the mise-en-scene and the camera, but also the narrative, which inspires the audience’s paranoia. It becomes difficult to distinguish the outside world from the world of Francis’ narrative. Francis’ narrative contains the German Expressionist sets that represent the harsh world in which Francis resides. Outside of his mind the sets have a more naturalistic rendering. Despite these differences, the Holstenwall mental institution appears exactly the same within the frame and outside of it. In addition, the filmic techniques such as the iris and matte shots are used in both narrative spaces. Nothing in the camera or editing’s representation of the world changes in either Francis’ story or the story outside of his. Consistent in both narrative settings is the control exerted by either Caligari or the Director over the younger generation. Strangely, Caligari controls only Cesar in the world of “fantasy,” however in “reality” the Director controls all those who reside in the asylum. In reality the older generation holds even more control because they determine who can be categorized as insane; they control sanity. Francis succeeds in taking down the tyranny in his “fantasy” world, but outside his narrative fails to overthrow the director revealing that in reality, the possibility of overthrowing these power structures are an illusion. Although reality and illusion appear to be separated, in fact they are mixed and even intertwined. The film purposely makes it difficult to draw a line between reality and illusion creating a sense of madness in the viewer just as Caligari/the Director creates madness within Francis. The film’s original advertising campaign centered on the phrase “You must become Caligari” (Coates 111). The film follows this motto, for his power exists in every facet, blurring the lines or reality and fiction and leaving the audience and the characters of the younger generation in a daze, struggling to decipher what they have seen. Caligari’s power in the film is much like the scene where the name Caligari keeps appearing and disappearing before the Director in the courtyard. It drives the Director insane for he cannot escape it just as Caligari’s power in the film is all encompassing. The power and tyrannical nature of Caligari pervade almost all aspects of the film, whether it is the narrative, the camera movement, the mise-en-scene, or the spectatorship.

Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Expressionism is a term which refers specifically to an artist tendency that became popular in the early 20th century. Expressionism itself was not founded by a solo artist; instead it formed from the influence of other artistic movements, paired with the political and social status of that time. Expressionism pioneered in Germany in the first decades of the 20th century, and was originally formed from progressive artists and writers in search of a deeper, more spiritual meaning to life. These men and women sought a more emotional perception of our world, steering away from the idea of a materialist society and a place of industrialisation. The movement offered a new way of viewing art; German film industry grew throughout the war, using film for overt militarist propaganda. However the need for propaganda ceased when the war came to a close, leading to unconventional film makers such as Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz to seek a new, unconventional and stylised fashion. They began to take inspiration from existing forms of expressionism such as literature and architecture. Expressionism is widely acknowledged to be based around the inner state of an individual; ‘it seeks to convey emotional and psychological states, rather than a realistic representation of the world’[1]. It reflects the unsettled emotional state of a character by way of pure cinematic technique. The artist of an expressionist piece will attempt to depict subjective emotions in art form, rather than objective reality.

The use of distortion, exaggeration and fantasy are used to convey this motion, artists relying heavily on the effects of infrequent angles, colour and defining bold lines to create a distorted version of reality. The elaborate TV set design makes any expressionist film easily identifiable; location shots were non-existent due to filmmaker’s seeking a design challenging and stemming away from the relatable world. This was in-keeping with the fact that Germany was in poverty at this time, resulting in low-budgets films. The sets would be entirely man-made with bold-angled buildings often creating the sensation that the world created is close to collapsing into itself.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari conforms to the typical gothic horror genre of 1920’s German Expressionism. The film is based on the distinctive theme of an outcast individual, in this case featuring the story of a deranged hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murders. The film is said to be the pinnacle of Expressionism, and is considered the quintessential work of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Being a silent movie, the film’s script is subtitled in a consistent theme on the screen, however is not heavily relied upon to narrate the storyline. Instead, the primary focus of the film is on the aesthetics, and uses the twisted visual style to convey what is happening throughout. German Expressionism, being highly influenced by existing artist movements, takes inspiration from both Film Noir and the Romantic period. Film Noir, originating in France, saw the introduction dark downbeat themes and featured the consistent use of shadows to convey deeper meaning. Whilst creating The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Robert Wiene adapted this use of shadows in-keep with the idea of a distorted reality, deciding to use shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets, echoing art pieces that had originally formed the first wave of German Expressionism. The use of shadows plays a key role in the film; often shadows are used to exaggerate unnatural and monstrous traits of characters.

The character of Dr Caligari features conventional characteristics expected of horror genre, such as a hooked nose or hunched back, these characteristics are effectively amplified through the use of lighting. Wiene uses shadows and the casting of shadows to highlight and exaggerate those traits that we as the audience universally identify with horror. The unnatural body features that we relate with horror appear larger and therefore convey to the audience that this character is to be feared. The use of shadows to exaggerate is a conventional technique used within gothic genre and German Expressionism overall. German Expressionism similarly takes inspiration from Romanticism. The romanticism movement strived to alter attitudes towards a deeper appreciation of the sanctity and beauty of life. The art movement focuses away from the pace of industrialization and opposed economic development. German Expressionism relates to this idea, it concentrates on and explores the idea of a spiritual life deeper than our own. ‘German Expressionism stemmed from the ideas of Romanticism, which is based around “mysticism and magic”. These ideas flourished after the war, as German’s were finding themselves connected to the dark forces and ghosts of this idea.[2]’ This idea is widely explored by Wiene within The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; the secondary-focused character of the somnambulist uses hypnotism to coerce Dr Caligari’s premeditated victims. The practice of hypnotism is an illustration of the distinctive supernatural aspects that German Expressionism explores. From a more in-depth point of view however, the story itself is narrated omnisciently, from a God-like perspective, linking to the idea of mysticism and a deeper meaning to life. In relation to style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari features aesthetics that greatly express the pinnacle of German expressionist cinema. Wiene chose to used oblique backdrops to portray the sought after crooked landscapes and buildings. The buildings are intended to articulate a person’s inner state and mind-set; the distorted buildings represent suppressed and unconscious desires and emotions. To do this, the backdrop uses harsh lines and sharp brush strokes to paint a distorted and arguably mangled setting. The unnatural building shapes convey an almost grotesque atmosphere, and the twisted sculptures communicate the painted town is close to collapsing into itself. The film also uses nightmarish shapes and surreal nature permeating every scene. This grotesque and surreal atmosphere is effective in amplifying the gothic horror genre, and is an established example of Expressionist cinema. Robert Wiene’s camera and editing techniques include a mix of shots; the opening and closing of a shadow frame is often used to swap in and out of scenes, and to focus in on a character’s face. As the prospect of angular distortion is primary within German Expressionism, Wiene chose to convey this in the camera angles themselves. ‘Wiene engaged this distortion of set construction to further enhance the angular consistency of his photography’[3]. The camera angles are often slanted rather than asymmetric, and inconsistent to symmetrical expectations, resulting in an exaggeration of the twisted and surreal shapes in the backdrop. A key method used throughout this film is open shots; often with the lighting focussing on Dr Caligari himself whilst other characters pass through the shot. This gives the impression if the deranged character holding some form of power within the scene; he holds his position whilst others pass carelessly in and out of shot. This also exaggerates the theme of isolationism within the film. The character is identifiably an outsider and an outlandish individual, through the use of these shots, Wiene communicates that the protagonist is someone to be feared, contributing to the genre of gothic horror. Chiaroscuro lighting, a form of lighting that depicts sharp contrasts between light and shadow, is a technique adapted from Film Noir that has been used widely throughout German Expressionist cinema. It manipulates contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on to an object or character. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari uses this expressionist technique to stimulate tension and horror; the high contrast form is effective in highlighting certain characteristics. For example, when the light falls unevenly onto the face of the somnambulist, his blackened eyes become bold and grotesque and the audience are made aware that this character possesses an element of the supernatural. One scene in the film features Francis going to the police station, the light that fell down to the stairs in this scene was made by paint. This expressionist method of painting lighting onto the set design is effectively used by Wiene in this film, film makers who seek a German Expressionist aesthetic might chose this as it is a device that enables them to have control of the lighting. They may choose to exaggerate a character’s size by minimizing the amount of apparent light that can escape them. Painting the lighting on also gives the film makers control of maintaining the expressionist feel within the film. Expressionism is consistent in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which is due to Wiene’s choice to maintain these aesthetics of twisted and morphed setting; the lighting is an imperative method in order to do so. Being an articulation of an art movement, the acting within The Cabinet of Dr Caligari did not play a major role in the film. The primary focus in the film was indisputably the aesthetics and mis-en-scene; however there is a distinct over-dramatization in the portrayal of characters in German Expressionist cinema, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is no exception. The acting techniques within this film revolve around exaggeration, facial expressions are prolonged and dragged out, since there is no dialogue present, the story must be articulated in other ways. Body language was also bold and dramatized; Dr Caligari himself communicates unnerving attributes through body language, his hunched back and unnaturally strange movements echoes the twisted and diverse nature of the setting. The somnambulist’s movements are often more controlled and restrained, due to being controlled by Dr Caligari. This portrayal is conveyed in the scene where he moves across the ground in search of Jane; as he moves you can see his motions are slow and deliberate, it therefore looks as if he is one of the shadows painted on the walls of the set. There is a well-defined theme of loneliness and alienation within The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. As commented on before, held within frames is an ambiance of seclusion between Dr Caligari and the towns people, the character holds his position whilst others pass through the frame as if he weren’t there, amplifying his outlandish characteristics. There is a hint of disorientation created through the aesthetics of the film, which also reinforces the madness within the character. The angles used represent the distorted mind of the character, exaggerating his deranged mentality. On a deeper level, isolationism can be seen in the town itself – Wiene incorporates a still at the beginning of the film of the German town, the image features a typical fairy tale like layout, in the style of Expressionist art. The town is shown to be on a hill, all buildings slanted and twisted towards the highly placed church at the top of the hill. This image represents a fantasy landscape however uses dark tones and shadows in order to signify the unnatural elements within it. The overall expressionist layout conveys a town of alienation, away from civilization. A small town way from the rest of society provides a private setting for any crimes committed, foreshadowing the horror that will occur. There was an element of social hypocrisy within The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; the film featured a series of narrative implications to capture a sense of dread that was unique to Germany. Post-war memories within the German public impacted societal attitudes towards the film. The film was classed as a response, from Mayer and Janowitz, to the governmental authority. The expressionist movement rose from the need to boost morale is thus related to post-war Germany – it reflects Kracauer’s assertion that civilians were eager to “withdraw from a harsh outer world into the intangible realm of the soul.”[4] The aim of the new founded expressionist cinema was claimed to be to ultimately win back an export market after the First World War, filmmakers needed a complete restoration of German cinema after propaganda films were no longer needed. Hence, as well as boosting morale, a change of direction was needed. In this case, it can be said that German Expressionism was brought about in order to manipulate the negative attitudes of Germany and the recent German government. The hypocrisy stated therefore is that the recent art movement was a way to again, gain control through the German population. Kracauer states that Dr Caligari was symbolic of the German war government and fatal tendencies inherent in the German system, suggesting that the character of Dr Caligari himself could represent the authority and conformity of the German government. In this case, it can be said that the intent of the piece of expressionist film was to express power that the Weimar Government sought during this period. Intentionally or not, the character himself does idolise power, which links to this idea of social hypocrisy within the film. There was also an aim for the renovated cinema movement to reach out to a new ‘sofisticated’ Germany; the population sought after a restoration and with this, something to place hope into, and to follow the development of. This brings me to its innovative ‘avant garde’ style. Avant garde is a term used to categorise the unorthodox and experimental, of which pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as cultural norm. The term can be related to modernism, in that new styles of work are experimentally constructed and introduced each day. The Cabinet of Dr Caligri can be considered a prime example of this. The expressionistic style offered aesthetic innovation to its German audience. Dispite the term ‘avant garde’ often being received critically and considered with initial unacceptability, German Expressionism cinema was widely appreciated when it first came about for its originality and radical respect for art. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was among the first of its time to explore expressionism in cinema, and was described in a New York Times review as ‘coherent, logical [and] genuine’, suggesting the initial acceptance of the newly received art movement. Freud’s psychosis theory of the id and the ego is also present in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; there is a reliable theme of good and evil that runs in the fundamentals of the storyline. The ego, being the conscious and rational aspect of a person’s mind set, and the id, which us the unconscious, both supposedly lie in everyone. Expressionist cinema commonly explored this theory, as it seemingly lent itself to the gothic horror genre. The id is represents the suppressed emotions that we all have a deep desire to express, Wiene uses this to create an effective anti-hero; the twisted mentality of Dr Caligari represents the id in its full form. Dr Caligari is an expression of the irrational ideology’s that we all possess and suppress as we mature, the subconscious idea that this was to be projected is used by filmmakers in order to create fear of the unknown. The deranged character is arguably an over dramatized version of this subconscious, which Wiene uses to ultimately create a fearful character of which fits the the gothic horror genre. Similarly to other horror pieces of its time, such as Frankenstein, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari also uses the rational to triumph good over evil.

I have evaluated the depth of German Expressionism within Wiene’s 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Looking at the film critically has enabled me to come to the conclusion that the film was the pinnacle of Expressionist cinema; the film captures the distorted and unorthodox aesthetics of the art movement, using elements of Film Noir and Romanticism to achieve this. The film’s dramatized acting and morphed set design are definitive components of an expressionist piece. Wiene’s avant garde attempt to bring expressionism into cinema screams modernity and a fresh perspective. The film can be considered the first gothic horror, using angular distortions and chiaroscuro lighting to stimulate fear within a cinematic viewing.

[1] https://movingimageeducation.org/analyse-film/film-culture/expressionism [2] https://emmarobinsonfilm.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/expressionism-and-romanticism/ [3] http://www.gradesaver.com/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari/study-guide/directors-influence [4] Daniel Talbot, Film: An Anthology – Page 351

Subversion and Discontent: The Distinctive Themes of Modernism in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

In the film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) directed by Robert Wiene, distinctive themes of modernism including expressionist, experimental techniques of contrasting colours, unnaturalistic sets that enhance the emotional state of characters, heavy make-up and overly theatrical movements created by the actors, the utilisation of innovative themes including violence, destruction, unrealistic depiction of humanity and the dead and focus on psychological reality, are reflected. The historical allusion to the First World War, where the somnambulist, Cesare, is represented as the “blind” soldiers, and Dr Caligari as the dominant government causing radical creativity and financial difficulties and the influence of German Expressionism in the 19th century, which created self-expression and evoked themes of destruction for the claustrophobic and fearful atmosphere experienced by society in the breadth of war, further highlights modernist attitudes. The artificial sense of reality and psychological illnesses experienced by soldiers after the war is conveyed through the utilization of visual techniques, including mis en scene, lighting, color, circle vignette, contrast and film techniques, including camera angles and shots.

The German expressionist film contradicts the conception of classical art and literature in Ancient Greece and Rome, engages with psychological horror and serves a negative and disturbing atmosphere in the opening scene “Introducing Cesare”, where the somnambulist is displayed to an audience at a circus and controlled by Dr Caligari to tell the future of individuals and the “kidnapping scene”, in which, Cesare has captured an innocent lady and sparked an outrage by the community. An intimate moment with the audience and Cesare is captured, through a circle vignette and close-up and the long duration of the eyes opening up, generates tension, which is never to be resolved, thus achieving a sense of intimidation and anxiousness. A social hierarchy is formed between, similarly, the German government and soldiers. It is evident where; Caligari is cut from a long shot into a close-up and cries “I am calling you I. Dr Caligari – your master. Awake for a moment – from your dark night”, a demanding and manipulative character is highlighted and “your dark night” is ironic for the Cesare falling into sleep and foreshadows the sinister deed of murdering a fair lady to be conducted in the evening; unconsciously. In the long shot of Cesare walking on the cliff face, the trees and bridge are depicted by angular and sharp black shadows, while the lighting is dark, to suggest the distorted madness and nihilistic emotions embodied by German expressionist artists and society, when they struggled to comprehend the impediment of traditional monarchical society and ultimate economic hardship and destruction and death of individuals. Similarly, Cesare possesses a disorientated and artificial state of mind as he is unable to control and thereby, determine what he is doing and becomes internally conflicted. Therefore, through the use of innovative themes including death and violence and experimental techniques of contrast, lighting and circle vignette, the film depicts distinctive themes of modernism.

Wiene’s film enhances modernist attitudes through the introduction of a historical allusion to the “blind” soldiers, who obeyed the superior government body in the endings of World War I and the key focus on psychological reality, emphasizing a negative and intimidating murder acts that Cesare conducts. The unrealistic depictions of the surroundings create a nightmarish perception of reality and can represent the painful and broken German society after World War I and the doomed rise of the Nazi party. The distrust in authority and distress amongst the audience is exemplified, through the cruel and morally incorrect task of murdering, controlled by Dr Caligari. The heavy ebony eyeshadow dragged from the somnambulist under eye to the high cheekbone portrays the individual’s deprivation of sleep and is reminiscent to post-war soldiers and families, who have countless hours of not sleeping, due to personal anxiety and alienation. This was much to do with the economic difficulties, social unrest and rapid industrialization experienced by German society. The film focuses on psychological reality through questioning the audience how frightening individuals may come to be, under the dark clouding of insanity and unconsciousness. The disruption of harmony and modernist themes of death and violence are glorified when Cesare kidnaps Jane. Jane is colored in white to symbolize innocence and peace and her body is outstretched upon the bed to suggest the character of “damsel in distress”. This heightens ultimate sympathy and vulnerability for Jane, therefore increasing the severity and horrendous nature of performing acts of murder. Thus, the German expressionist film recalls modernist attitudes that reinforce the dread and mysterious nature of the German interwar period.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari thus reflects distinctive themes of modernism including a focus on psychological reality derived from Sigmund Freud, experimental techniques, and innovative themes. The end of traditional monarchical society and the introduction of social democracy led to the contradiction of classical Greece and Roman art and literature, as there was a period of financial hardship and mental deterioration of individuals. The genre of psychological horror is also a modernist aspect, thus conveying the dark ideas that build from unconsciousness and insanity. Therefore, the film suggests distinctive innovative themes of modernism including destruction, alienation, and violence.