The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari thoughts

“The Unchained Camera” episode of “Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood” uses clips, narration and interviews to provide us with a sense of German cinema from the late teens to the late 1920s. What are the particular strengths of German cinema of that period?

Instead of dealing with ‘outer’ conflict, like war or divorce or being kidnapped, expressionist films deal with ‘inner conflict’. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deals with madness, or insanity. It doesn’t show the world as it is, but rather as how it’s perceived. Or not even how it’s perceived, but as the main character’s inner state is. The mood of Germany in the 1920s was one of anxiety, dread, and horror; the government was in shambles and the country was crushed by the debt of reparations for World War I. Expressionist cinema narrows in on self-reflection and identity, something lots of Germans were thinking about at the time.

 The textbook and lecture consider “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” to be a prime example of German Expressionist cinema.  Describe some of its Expressionist elements.  

First of all, the set looks like the background of the painting The Scream. Everything is disjointed and crooked, to put the viewer on edge. It’s an “emotionally intense creative distortion” (Mast and Kawin) of the world. It’s not just that the people are acting strangely; it’s that the world itself is out of sorts. German expressionism explored the Feelings of Germany at the time, including isolation (helped along by Germany banning all non-German films!), alienation, madness, and betrayal. Francis feels alienated and isolated because of his conclusions about Dr. Caligari, and the entire narrative betrays us about whether or not the film’s plot is true!

The acting style of the film is often discussed. What do you think of it, especially that of Caligari and of Cesare?

I have a lot of trouble reading facial expressions, so I’m not sure how helpful I’ll be. Since the lighting in the film makes faces appear very bright and white, any darker elements on the actor’s faces are highlighted and seem exaggerated. Cesare has dark circles painted under his eyes and he’s usually under-lit, making his expressions, even when they are neutral, seem monstrous but also performative. Francis always seems over-eager or nervous in everything he does, but there is foreshadowing? in the way that he seems to go everywhere with his coat hanging over him, instead of with his arms in the sleeves; he’s not all the way put together. 

Do you know any later films that seem influenced by “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”? If so, cite specific influences.

This is probably indirect or unintentional, but The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reminded me a lot of Coraline. The set design, the everything-slightly crooked or slightly-weird, reminded me of the Coraline Other Mother sets. It also reminds me of Pi (1994) because of its use of ‘zooming in’ on parts of the screen to emphasize scenes or expressions. (An ‘iris shot’!) Further research says that this is an old-fashioned way of filming, even by 1920, but this was really my first encounter with it. Also! While I’ve never seen Edward Scissorhands, even I am familiar enough with it to realize that Cesare and the titular Edward share many visual similarities. Long and gangly and dark.

 On pages 106-108, the textbook explains the screenwriters had written an ending showing a less kindly Caligari and were displeased with the film’s ending. What’s your view?

If Francis is really the insane one, why, when we return to the ‘real’ world, does everything not assert itself into a pattern of normality? If the distortion and crookedness of the world is the same in both the fantasy and the reality, what’s the truth? Why did they build their insane asylum to be so crooked? I like the idea of the ‘twist’ of the film, but I kind of think it’s a way to wiggle out of the consequences of the movie. The story doesn’t really matter, like in Alice in Wonderland, because ‘it was all just a dream’. So why is it being told? When I watched the Cinema Europe clips of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and it told me the twist ahead of time, that Francis was the insane one all along, I thought he would be the killer as well. If none of it was ‘real’ within the context of the film… it just seems pointless. Like there’s no consequences. 

Have you any other thoughts about “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” you’d like to share?

I watched this film twice so I could stop repeating “it was just really cool”. The sets!!! The sets are my favorite thing.  (If you couldn’t tell.) Also, “Cinematic Mistake” is the name of my next band. I finished watching this for the second time about an hour and a half ago and I still feel kind of anxious in my heart and throat. If the ‘point’ of film is to elicit emotion, “the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” definitely did for me.

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