This film review examines Robert Wiene’s 1919 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German expressionist film set in a surreal world of an expressionist painting brought to life through the sets designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig. The style of the film is symbolism for the uncertainty of the German people at the time following World War 1, and the emotions they were feeling having lived through it.
The film starts out in a normal setting and then becomes this surreal world during a flashback that the story of the film takes place in, this world is later explained through the psychological state of the main character. This is symbolism for the psychological state of Germany at the time after world war 1 and uses expressionist paintings to show how unsettled the country was feeling, which is portrayed through the characters and the locations, Matt Holmes agrees that ‘The imaginative sets show the deep psychological nightmare of Germany who couldn’t quite believe the horrors they had been through in the previous years.’, also due to constraints in budgets with the value of money dropping during the German expressionist period, cheaper sets were used which allowed this style of expressionist films to come forward and be more successful as well as the ban on most international films in Germany. The film was also part of the extreme anti-realism period of German expressionism, which worked as a form of escapism to the public, from what had happened and their lives.
The dimly lit spaces and contrast between dark and light in the film are typical of German expressionism but add to the effect, creating a dramatic emphasis on the characters and what is happening. Using dark cramped settings adds to the suspense and build up to the climatic points, such as when the Sleepwalker is creeping up to the victim, the camera angles are close to the scene and enclosed creating a sense of claustrophobia while the victim is being attacked. Kolar takes the view that ‘The story lines of German expressionist films matched the visuals in terms of darkness and disillusionment. Often sombre in mood and featuring characters from a corrupt underworld of crime, the films’ dramatic effects produced motifs of claustrophobia and paranoia.’, the visuals are used to add to the narrative of the film, with the sets being used to start the build up to a climatic point, and add emphasis on parts of the film. Everything in the world created is familiar in shape and recognisable but is distorted to become stylized in a way which adds to the psychological unsettlement in the film, Reimer agrees that ‘The world, created to be both familiar and strange, speaks to the physical and psychological horrors Germans experienced after the end of the war’, which adds to the escapism of the film by the settings being different to everyday life but while still familiar.
Kolar. German Expressionism: The World of Light and Shadow. http://mubi.com/lists/german-expressionism-the-world-of-light-and-shadow
Matt Holmes. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Suffering creates art? http://whatculture.com/film/55-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920-robert-wiene.php
Robert Reimer, Historical Dictionary of German Cinema (New York: The Scarecrow, Inc., 2008)