Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Unit 2: Film Review- The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) Dir. Robert Wiene

Fig 1

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920's silent German expressionist film directed by Robert Wiene. It is most noted. by modern viewers, for it's strong visual style which is totally unseen today  as Julia Merriam writes in her review for "While the plot may be a bit dry, the set is unlike anything seen by many modern viewers" (Merriam, 2008)

The story is pretty basic, although in its historical context the idea would have been pretty novel; it starts off in a courtyard where a young man tells a stranger a story and from here the film appears like a flashback. This beginning scene throws the viewer from a clear shot of a real stone courtyard in the abyss of thick black lines, forced perspective, impossible buildings and strong painted shadows that make up the remainder of the feature.

The use of forced perspective makes the buildings of the town lean over into the street giving everything a horribly claustrophobic feel which lends itself nicely to the dreamy horror in the beginning parts of the story in which Dr. Caligari, a sideshow owner at a travelling fair, displays his somnambulist named Cesare (a sleep walker, more akin to a zombie only still alive) who predicts the death of the main protagonist's friend. It's under these same buildings and through the off kilter streets that Cesare is chased by a mob carrying Jane, the protagonist's fiancĂ©e; the start contrasts of black and white as well as the unbalancing nature of the unnatural perspective add a real sense of chaos to the scene. "The chase carries them through streets of stark lights and shadows and up a zigzagging mountain trail" (Ebert, 2009) and it is from here that the story takes another mad twist and reverts back to shocking reality, replacing the expressionist with plain old normality; for here the craziness is in the fabric of the story itself.

Fig 2

Caligari's impressive sets serve to amplify the acting which is also grand and gestural whilst being at odds with the flat backdrops. Roger Ebert in his review finds the effect of the actors against the 2D backdrops to be symbolic, in that "The stylized sets, obviously two-dimensional, must have been a lot less expensive than realistic sets and locations, but I doubt that's why the director, Robert Wiene, wanted them. He is making a film of delusions and deceptive appearances, about madmen and murder, and his characters exist at right angles to reality. None of them can quite be believed, nor can they believe one another." (Ebert, 2009). The cost involved in producing realistic sets probably were more than a small post-war German production could have met but it is probably more to do with, as Ebert points out, the effect it has on the characters and also the emphasis it puts on the themes the characters portray. Julia Merriam goes further by positing "The image of three-dimensional people walking through this starkly two-dimensional world is disorienting, making the universe within Caligari seem slightly off-kilter." (Merriam, 2008) This is often the case, especially when Cesare is being chased and is seen standing on the roof of a house, the sigh of him and Jane in their realistic appearance against the pointed surreal environment that they inhabit it powerfully disorientating in its strangeness.

Fig 3

The make-up applied to Conrad Veidt who plays Cesare is brilliant, along with his costume it really sells the character and adds to his strangeness and the horror he evokes. Being the only character that is  truly out of the expressionist backgrounds "Veidt manages some genuinely creepy moments as Cesare in Caligari, staggering across the painted, stylized landscapes, his mascara-highlighted eyes bulging with menace" (Kinnard, 1995) and his most memorable shot is the close-up where he gives his ominous prediction where his face reflects the entirety of the set he stands on just through his make-up and wide eyed acting.

Fig 4


Fig 1. Film still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). (Accessed 01/11/11)

Fig 2. Film still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). (Accessed 01/11/11)

Fig 3. Film still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  (Accessed 01/11/11)

Fig 4. Film still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). (Accessed 01/11/11)


Ebert. Robert. 3rd June 2009. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) Movies (Accessed 01/11/11)

Kinnard, Roy. 1999. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: A History of Horror (Accessed 01/11/11)

Merriam, Julia. 13th October 2008. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)| (Accessed 01/11/11)

Rot, Professor Corpse, 12th January 2011. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at (Accessed 01/11/11)

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