The G.E.M in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
5 December 2010
In cinema, the German Expressionist movement was an artistic, avant-garde, exaggeration of reality as a way of reacting to politics, the economy, and (perhaps most importantly) the human condition in the aftermath of World War I. German Expressionism often disfigured reality to offer a new lens with which to see it, and one of the movement’s most famous films is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Briefly, Caligari fits into the Expressionist movement as follows. In Germany, after World War I, when Caligari was made, the country was in rough shape. Economically, there was staggering debt. Huge causality rates and the overall feeling of defeat weighed heavily on the once powerful country. These struggles are present in Caligari. For example, the setting is a small, impoverished town. The jagged shapes and confined spatial relations symbolize physical trauma and confusion. The film’s attempt to capture the human experience is read, in part, through the residents who come to Caligari’s tent at the fairgrounds. Caligari is able to carry out his wicked deeds because the people come to him desperate to know their future; they come in search of an escape from their uncertainty.
However, if you want to read all the ways 1920 German is stylistically reconfigured and commented on in Caligari then Google the film’s title and click any of the countless hits your search returns. It seems most people focus on how Caligari fits into the German Expressionist movement. Yet, the point I think is more interesting, and less burnt out, is how German Expressionism fits into Caligari.
Consider for a moment when the audience first sees Caligari. As he removes his hat, it’s difficult to miss his remarkable hair-coloring; he has bold white stripes beginning from the center of his hairline fanning back. This is a minor and perhaps forgettable detail amid a film of overwhelming linear and geometric references. However, eventually the audience learns this man is not Caligari at all, and when we see him later as his true self, Francis’ doctor at the asylum, this dramatic hair-coloring has disappeared. Yet, it hasn’t gone far because the pattern on the asylum floor is the same bold white strips beginning from a common point and fanning away, like rays from the sun.
Everything the audience perceived as reality were actually the delusions of a mentally unstable man; however, there is some degree of truth in the distortion. Although Francis warped reality completely, reality is the basis of his distortion: making his doctor the sinister Caligari, a patient his beautiful fiancée, Jane, another patient Cesare, the Somnambulist, and even transferring the pattern on the asylum flooring to Caligari’s hair.
The film, in a way, outs itself. In revealing reality has been distorted, the film calls attention to the distortion of reality; therefore, the film boldly acknowledges it is manipulating one story to tell another. The reason German Expressionism became a movement at all was because openly critiquing or even commenting on the reality of parts of Europe, specifically Germany, post WWI was dangerous. It was unstable time, and most people were smart enough not to rock the boat. However, Caligari is a boat rocker; this film makes waves. Not well hidden in a great, entertaining horror film is a statement that German Expressionism is alive and will use its avant-garde expression to discuss the contemporary issues.
So, it seems Caligari not only serves as an example of German Expressionism, but it also defines it. Through its ending, Caligari exposes how Expressionism works, a move as daring as the movement itself.
For Your Consideration…
Do the bold white stripes appear other places in the film? Do any other traces of the asylum appear in Francis’ Caligari story?
Two words “color tinting.” It is an effect seen in this film (emphasized more in remastered versions) intended to help the audience better follow/understand the film. What do you think of it? Is it odd that a filmmaker who intentionally distorted reality would tint the film out of concern the audience would have trouble following the plot? What’s tinted, and how does the tinting improve and/or clarify your movie-watching experience?
What do you make of the last “line”? The film never tells us how the doctor will “cure” Francis, does it? Is it important how the doctor will do it?
This film is known for its lasting contributions to the horror genre. Were there any shots/sequences/effects you found particularly creepy? How so? (For me, it’s when Cesare first, ever so slowly, opens his eyes…chills!)