German Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

As above so below ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)
As above so below

If you, like me, have grown tired of the recent trend in jump scares to force a reaction out of the audience, then we must go back to the roots. The very origin of horror lies more in the atmosphere than maniacal jumping, more on the imagination of the viewer than spoon-feeding them every single detail. The top background (set) is from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first-ever full-length horror movie in history, directed by Robert Weine in 1920. Of course, on seeing it, the first thing I noticed was that this depicted town was strikingly similar to Botticelli’s renaissance painting of Dante Alighieri’s famous “Inferno” but strangely, inverted. Of course, this is not a mere coincidence.

Look Closely (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

Famed to be inspired heavily by German Expressionism, Dr. Caligari is a true peer of horror and the macabre. So why this inversion? As a film, inversion is the working catalyst in the cinema-scoped world. Real, with the unreal, and imagination with the material. An effortless ride into both sides of the waking and the dreaming world. But, truly it tells us that as opposed to what we are seeing on screen, it is what we think we see on the screen that is more important. Perhaps Dr. Caligari wanted to say it is an ascent out of madness, and that is why the inversion of Botticelli. Perhaps it wanted to show that it was a return to classical art forms with warped dimensions. Or perhaps it is a conscious decision to leave the viewer cryptic subliminal messages which would decode themselves later when something in life finally comes to view. The horror was primitive, self-conscious, and of course of the unknown. Whatever be the reason for its inversions, the film is a marvelous example of a combination of film and theater as well as German expressionism.

Shades of Expressionism

A few sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
A few sets of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

To start off, let us assume that the movie is a waking dream. Nothing is as it seems or manifested in reality. Keeping that in mind, this inversion of reality is quite easy to decipher. The overall look and style of the movie were inspired by Max Reinhardt, director of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. His antirealism was itself a contribution of German expressionism. Since the target was the expression of inner thought, inner imagination rather than reality as discussed above, simplified geometric shapes, masks, brushstrokes, bright lights, and colors were all equally permissible methods.

Some expressionist paintings 
(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)
Some expressionist paintings

This inversion now makes sense, because German expressionism itself took hold after WWII. However, it started quite a bit earlier than WWI. It spectates life and most important changes. With the rise of the new world Germany, the Expressionists sought to remind society of its bleak existence. They wanted humanity to rise against their temporal masters. From the naked human body, expressionism touched everywhere. Its goal quite simply was the overturning of the current society. Truly turmoil gave rise to the unreal, the unseen. Though this movement did not last long, its contributions can be still seen even now. So, in Dr. Caligari, we find a good example of that inversion which will be even more obvious once we see expressionist paintings and theater. Plays by Bertholt Bretch would also continue to use this unreality effect.

Some more set designs inspired by German Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Some more set designs inspired by German Expressionism

Dance of light and shadow (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

The unreality effect was not limited only to strange, dreamlike sets, but also the usage of space and light. Another feature of German expressionism was the use of bright lights so that the audience could feel how unreal the scenes on stage are. Its intention was to make the audience a critical audience. Garish makeup, strong light, almost white spaces contrasted with dark black spaces, were also staple features of this movement. The stark contrast was decidedly harsh and that of course was the point. We find these also in the plays of Brecht and Ionesco. Brecht, the creator of the epic theater was consciously making the unreal come to life by stage, music, and acting. The acting in Caligari is similarly as gaudy, as expressive, as over the top as the movie requires, and very theatrical. Actively it made me think that “Wait is this possible?”. That is the unreality effect working its magic. Brecht probably deserved the cigars if you ask me.

Brecht's plays (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)
Brecht’s plays

Mouth of Madness

What is real? (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)
What is real?

What is the real and what is the unreal in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? is there truly a clue to decipher it? The answer may lie in geometry. When we make our way through the movie, no shape seems real, no straight lines, all of it makes us sense something is wrong. However, beyond the city lies the mental institution where the shapes are more geometric, more solid straight lines. The mental hospital being on the top of the hill. Is it a coincidence or is it the last gate to sanity as per the painting comparison to Botticelli? We have to accept Dr. Caligari as a waking dream and only then will its garishness make sense to us. Everything that we see is perhaps a delusion, perhaps a misguided memory. We have to search for clues in the movie to decipher its true intention and story. While it gave rise to the many horror tropes we see today, including in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a lot of what made Dr. Caligari so special was lost in a reception over the years.

Macabre and Mystical

Moments in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The acting of Dr. Caligari is marvelous. Yes, seen right now, it may seem oddly humorous. Jittery movements of characters who seem like something out of a diabolical story. But, that is what Dr. Caligari is! It is just a story and only the madness is real. Another important aspect of the movie was the music. Every part of the movie if dissected separately will be seen as a completely separate entity. Of course, they will make more sense together but they mesh so well that sometimes they become a singular experience. A quaver in the chords to signify a thought or expression, slight curtains of dissonance signifying stealthy footsteps, or a massive chaotic crescendo when the madness is truly unleashed, all create a truly otherworldly experience. In fact, without this music, the atmosphere would have never set it. It is not only a dance of light and shadow but a dance of a sinister musician narrating the story with his instruments while the actors perform their dialogues much like theater occasionally breaking the fourth wall.

A horror masterpiece (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari iconic moments
Iconic moments that would influence horror

The mad lover, a man of supernatural capability seeking love and not above using force to get what he truly desires. This reminds us of Dracula or Frankenstein. However, such things are simply novels. Can such a thing happen in reality? In a landscape where stories become reality, where a monstrously evil doctor unleashes a force beyond understanding, can anything truly be real? Are our minds playing tricks on us? The very thought is enough to drive in us deep the dagger of terror. The acting, sets, expressions, music are all twists that the knife makes to go deeper. Truly, this movie is not only a great example of German expressionism but the originator of tropes seen in horror movies even now. A killer who suffers from obsession, narcissism, the main character visiting the mental hospital many times to find answers leading only to madness and chaos, a character who dies fast because he tempts fate. If you’ve seen these things in horror movies thank this movie. Of course, the helpless woman trope is now a bit redundant with the inclusiveness of today but it still finds its place. So, this movie is a true masterclass in horror. No jump scares no blood, or disturbing apparitions but a subtle inversion of reality enough to question your own sanity. I think the greatest achievement of the movie is that it makes us dream, and that should never be sold short.

From the left: Psycho (1960), Man Who Laughs (1928). Both were influenced by Dr. Caligari.

So remember when you see the shadows cast long and unruly when you see a man in the half-light, it is only a dream.

Further Reading:

Boidurjya Ganguly

An arts student living on movies, music and games. 50% caffeine and 100% tired.

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