Friday, 25 September 2015

Space Oddities: Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari

Fig. 1 Original movie poster
from Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920)
Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920) Fig. 1 directed by Robert Wiene was considered to be one of the very first horror movies ever made. It draws many elements from classic Gothic literature and this is reflected in the film's characters, many of which are heavily based on Gothic stock characters. This includes Jane (the beautiful damsel in distress), Francis (the hero) and Cesare and Caligari who make up the two villains in the film.

Many events were taking place during the time in which the film was created. The most important being the removal of censorship by the Weimar Republic which led to a rise in artistic freedom. This resulted in a revolution in German cinema and art. Artists were suddenly permitted to express their creativity, no matter how sexual, political or rebellious their ideas. However, Germany was also recovering after World War 1, something that left the people of Germany 'physically and psychologically wounded' (Harvard Film Archive, December 19). The political turmoil was reflected in artist's work, leading to the beginning of German Expressionism. It is therefore highly probable that Wiene was influenced by the events happening during his time, therefore, Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari is an example of German Expressionism, with its 'deeply shadowed lighting, distorted perspective and intentionally artificial sets' (Harvard Film Archive, December 19).

The most prominent feature in Wiene's film is the set design. Wiene utilizes Gothic conventions when designing his movie set. The viewer instantly recognizes the Gothic set design when observing the dark corridors and winding staircases that make up the little town of Hostenwall. Another instance in which the audience is reminded of the film's Gothic influences is shortly before Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) is murdered, the shadow of the murderer is seen on the wall behind him. The use of shadows is very typical of Gothic horror. The distortion created by Wiene creates a feeling of unease; the crooked windows, dark alleyways, sinister shadows and even the monochrome nature of the film connects well to the overall emotion it evokes in the audience.

Fig. 2 Cesare from Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920)
The character's use of heavy make-up is also very significant and connects well with the film's horror genre. At first glance, Jane (Lil Dagover) looks like as if she has emerged from Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005). Her heavy eye shadow, eyeliner and black lipstick give her a Gothic look, but also makes her resemble a porcelain doll, with her white skin and small, pouty lips. It is interesting to note that Wiene's Caligari later inspired many artists to produce various films and animations including Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Cesare's (Conrad Veidt) look is even more intense as seen in Fig. 2, his face caked with heavy, white powder and his eyes outlined with thick black kohl (almost too thick, in fact). Cesare's palid, vampire-esque look and slim physique reminds the audience of a creepy ninja, especially when he blends in with the black background, his black clothing providing him with effective camouflage, as displayed in Fig .3. Also, just before he kidnaps Jane, he quietly and stealthily tiptoes into Jane's room, looming over her, making him appear as a sinister figure.
Fig. 3 Cesare from Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Perhaps one of the most startling and disturbing scenes in the film is when it is suddenly revealed to the audience that the story has been narrated by Francis (Friedrich Feher), who appears to be residing in an insane asylum. It is soon revealed that the whole story is a figment of Francis' imagination and that Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) is not in fact, a crazy, scheming villain but is a doctor at the asylum Francis resides in. Critic Murray (2014) comments: 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari illustrates something more eternal: about great manipulators, and the underlying anxiety that either society has gone mad, or we have'. This is certainly an interesting point and manipulation and deception have become a great feature in many of the best hit classic movies including The Matrix (1999) and Shutter Island (2010). The clever use of manipulation is effective because it is unexpected. It causes awe, it surprises and delights audiences as they realize that they have been tricked into believing something that was never true.

Original reviews of the film 'praised the direction and perfect tempo of the film, as well as the sets that squeeze and turn adjust the eye, and through the eye, the mentality' (Robinson, 1997). It is very likely that audiences at the time found the film unsettling and disturbing, taking into account the theme and subject manner. But nevertheless, Caligari was one of the pioneering Psychological Horrors of its time. The film is very engaging and the constant ambiguities present throughout the film constantly leaves the audience thinking what will happen next.

Surreal, twisted, and mind-boggling - it is a film that will inspire generations upon generations of filmmakers.


Text sources:

(December 19) Decadent Shadows: The Cinema of Weimar Germany Harvard Film Archive at: (Accessed on 24.09.15)

Murray, N. (2014) in: The Dissolve [online] At: (Accessed on 24.09.15)

Robinson, D. (1997) Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari London British Film Institute (Accessed on 24.09.15)

Ebert, R. (2009) Great Movie: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [online] At: (Accessed on 24.09.15)

[Author unknown] Gothic literature (2013) [online] At: (Accessed on 25.09.15)

Illustration list:

Figure 1. Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920) [Poster] At: (Accessed on 25.09.15)

Figure 2. Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920) At: (Accessed on 25.09.15)

Figure 3. Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (1920) At: (Accessed on 25.09.15)

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