Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Space Oddities: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), whilst essentially seen as a silent horror film made in the inter-war years, can be called a piece of artwork from the German Expressionist movement, which quickly rose from the country’s defeat in World War I. The film’s outrageous and horrific production design seems to stand out the most, featuring jagged shapes, leaning buildings, distorted perspective and thick divisions between light and dark, as if the production designers took the black-and-white filmstrip to its greatest advantage (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 
On first sight, it can be said that silent films as a whole, in comparison with the later talkies, focussed significantly more on visual literacy, especially with production design; some may even argue that the invention of sound destroyed beautiful visual storytelling. Both writer Carol King and film school tutor Dominic Power put forward that “motion pictures both created and fed an appetite for spectacle, offering the possibility of recreating the past, reimagining the present and visualising the future (Kemp, 2011:19), whilst film director Martin Scorsese recites director King Vidor’s words that the cinema “is an illusion, more powerful than any other [medium] (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Pt. 2, 1995)”.
When making comparisons with George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), focusing on ideas popular during the turn of the new century such as decorated ornamentation, Imperialism, progressivism and the voyage of discovery, Caligari immediately explores the impacts of the Great War, replacing optimism with social uncertainty, moral doubt and growing paranoia, reflected into the film’s stripped back and juxtaposed production design. “[Caligari] created a world where the futuristic sets became actors – they visually created a realm so terrifying that audiences felt its dark and looming presence long after the film was over. (Whitlock, 2010:53)”. This could therefore argue that not all filmmaking should be made purely for fantasy or escapism, but to challenge the public’s perception and force them to ask questions.
 Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902) [Fig. 2]
Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [Fig. 3]
Art historian Stephen Little defines Expressionism as “the art of unrest and the search for truth (Little, 2004:104), and that the movement is “characterised by emotional extremes which can be traced back to the works of [Vincent] Van Gogh [and] Edvard Munch (Little, 2004:104).” Expressionist painters such as Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner “used strong colour, distorted figures, and sometimes abstraction to explore themes of belonging and alienation (Little, 2004:104). Indeed, the story of Caligari greatly focuses on themes such as paranoia, questioning one’s identity and fear of death, for example, the sleepwalker’s prophecy of a strictly limited life. The film’s twist ending could perhaps extend these themes even further, showcasing a somewhat ‘circle of life’ as the character is revealed to be the (next) sleepwalker.

 Kandinsky's Improvisation 28 (second version) (1912, oil on canvas) [Fig. 4]
Kirchner's Artillerymen (1915, oil on canvas) [Fig. 5]
It can be highlighted that Caligari’s cinematography resembles little different than to simply ‘theatre-on-screen’, as if the viewer would be standing in front of these characters, though it could be argued that this was a result of technological limitations of the time. Critic Kim Newman states that “the film relies entirely on theatrical devices, the camera fixed centre stage as the sets are displayed and the actors providing any movement or impact (Schneider, 2011:31), which could probably explain the bright and exaggerated costume and makeup (see Fig. 6). A film like Caligari could therefore contribute to the argument ‘Why make a film in an environment you can easily recreate on stage?’
Fig. 6 
Journalist Cathy Whitlock puts forward the long-term impacts of Caligari beyond the culture of Weimar Germany, such as the growth of horror and film noir in Hollywood in the 1930s-40s (e.g., James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)), and the impact on today’s filmmakers such as Tim Burton (e.g. Edward Scissorhands (1990)): “Filmmakers and art directors would turn to German Expressionism throughout the century to convey some of the most frightening, dark and shadowy moments seen on film (Whitlock, 2010:55).
In conclusion, Caligari could be seen as one of the few instances where film fully embraces the radical art movements that impact on general society at that time, especially true when observing film industries outside of America, like Germany’s, who would have wanted to take different directions than to Hollywood’s money-making interests: “The twenties… marked the birth of the [Hollywood] studio system as an “entertainment factory” – films were literally manufactured as products on an assembly line (Whitlock, 2010:41)”.

  • KEMP, P. (general editor) (2011) Cinema: The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson
  • LITTLE, S. (2004) Isms: Understanding Art. London: Herbert Press
  • PARKINSON, D. (2012) 100 Ideas That Changed Film. London: Laurence King
  • SCHNEIDER, S. (general editor) (2011) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. London: Octopus
  • WHITLOCK, C. (2010) Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction. New York: Harper-Collins
Illustration List:
  • A Trip to the Moon (1902) From: A Trip to the Moon. Directed by Melies, G. [Film still] France: Star Film. At: (Accessed 23/9)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Directed by: Wiene, R. [Film still] Germany: Babelsberg. At: (Accessed 23/9)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Directed by: Wiene, R. [Film still] Germany: Babelsberg. At: (Accessed 23/9)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [Poster] At: (Accessed 23/9)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Directed by: Wiene, R. [Film still] Germany: Babelsberg. At: (Accessed 23/9)
  • Kandinsky, W. (1912) Improvisation 28 (second version) At: (Accessed 23/9)
  • Kirchner, E. (1915) Artillerymen [Oil on canvas] At: (Accessed 23/9)


  1. Hi Robin,

    Well done - a truly insightful, well-structured and well-written review :)

    Just a couple of minor bits and pieces; be careful when you use phrases such as 'The film’s outrageous and horrific production design...' as this is quite a subjective description, and also comes across as very negative. Perhaps there are words that might have suited better... exaggerated, unconventional, etc.

    Make such that your speech marks come directly at the end of your quote, and that the reference is outside of them, so for example "...the most frightening, dark and shadowy moments seen on film " (Whitlock, 2010:55).

    When you are quoting from an author that features in an edited book, your reference will be slightly different - see here -

    Just have another look at the referencing guide again, as although you have all the right components, some parts need to be in italics to keep them separate from the rest of the text (book titles etc)

    You have obviously spent a lot of time researching and thinking about the underlying themes in the film. I definitely think it would be beneficial for you to start your background reading before watching the film; that way you can pick out what you think the themes will beforehand. Maybe choose 2 or 3 areas to focus on and then concentrate on looking for those when you watch the film. This might help you avoid getting too bogged down with lots of different ideas afterwards, when you start writing.

  2. Hey Robin :) I just want to echo Jackie's enthusiasm for the scope and ambition of this review. This is highly readable, richly contextualised and sparkles with insightful connections. Well done. But Jackie is right re. reading up prior to the film screenings; I don't want you getting bogged down in these 'short, sharp' writing exercises at the expense of everything else - and at the expense of your own energy levels. We don't just want you to work hard on this course, we need you to work 'smart' too - which about giving tasks proportionate time and energy in the context of delivering a complete body of work. This is great stuff, Robin - but if it took you hours and hours and hours (it might not have done), then I want you to think about ways of working more efficiently in terms of your time + workload.

    Looking forward to your next review!