Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

April 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

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] https://www.gradesaver.com:443/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari/study-guide/directors-influence [4] Daniel Talbot, Film: An Anthology – Page 351

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