Sunday, 6 November 2011

Worlds Apart 1: Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Fig. 1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Poster

Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari focuses on the story of a travelling sideshow operator named Caligari who shows off his somnambulist Cesare, who he claims has been asleep for twenty-three years, at a fair. The key trigger to the story is when Cesare, who can answer any question, is asked by the leading characters friend when he’ll die, and is answered with “At first dawn!” Once we find out that his friend is dead the next day we are sent through a horror story of “who is and who isn’t the murderer”. This film set a sort of standard or inspirational base for future horror genre films by not only relying on its storyline but heavily supported by its visuals. The well selected cast with their eerie makeup to match are put through a landscape of completely bizarre set design that pushes the mind further into the story and

“Rather than attempting to capture "realism," which was the general method of the time, Wiene went the opposite route, slathering the screen with forced perspectives and all kinds of bizarre diagonals and slants; there is hardly a right angle to be found in this film. It results in vivid, dreamlike logic and a terrifying lack of control.” (Anderson, 2008)

Fig. 2. Caligari and Cesare
In its own way the set design allows the viewer to be engulfed in a world of a silent film where everything is distorted and nothing is right, and no one is to be believed or trusted. Its style leads The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be one of the first examples of German Expressionism,
“a visual style in which not only the characters but the world itself is out of joint. I don't know of another film that used its extreme distortions and discordant angles, but its over-all attitude certainly cleared the way for "The Golem," "Nosferatu," "Metropolis" and "M." (Ebert, 2009)
This movement can also be attributed to the fact that World War I had just passed and Europe was in a state of chaos. In a way, people saw a new light and frightening one at that and they started finding new ways of portraying that in the arts. The influence of WWI affected much of culture and in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,
“The script was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer after World War I, a period of widespread violence throughout the country. Insanity is rampant. At an abstract level, the picture presages Hitler’s mad Machiavellian manipulation that turned Germany into a killing machine during World War II.” (Smithey, 2011)

Fig. 3. Bizarre Set Design

Although the film is a silent one and mainly viewed as just an early horror flick the underlying themes can run pretty deep, even to the point that saying the chaotic post influences of WWI affected the visual outcome of the set design and future films to come.

Anderson, J. (2008) Combustible Celluloid At: (Accessed on: 02.11.11)

Ebert, R. (2009) At: (Accessed on: 02.11.11)

Smithey, C. (2011) COLE SMITHEY At: (Accessed on: 02.11.11)

Illustration List
Fig. 1. Weine, Robert (1920) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Poster At: (Accessed on: 02.11.11)

Fig. 2. Caligari and Cesare (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Directed by: Robert Weine [film still] Germany: Decla-Bioscop AG At: (Accessed on: 02.11.11)

Fig. 3. Bizarre Set Design (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Directed by: Robert Weine [film still] Germany: Decla-Bioscop AG At: (Accessed on: 02.11.11)

1 comment:

  1. Hey Gabriel,

    Great to have the context for the film expressed here - Caligari somehow reflecting the fractured emotions of a world traumatised by war. You know, historical context is often the key to lending depth and breath to your critical writing, which is why it's important to start at the beginning of something (i.e. early cinema) to properly understand what we're looking at and experiencing now. Good selection of quotes throughout - well done. Now - get on top of your other weekly tasks, Gabriel - I want your OGR to be exemplary...