Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Fig. 1
Robert Wiene's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is a silent horror that is considered a classic of German Expressionism. It was noted to also be one of the first films to have introduced a twist ending. The plot concerns the protagonist, Francis, discovering the truth behind the mysterious deaths within his village. He believes it to be Dr Caligari and his carnival act, the somnambulist, Cesare. He believes the Doctor to be insane, when the twist ending reveals that he is the mad man. The story sets out to confuse its audience, but the unexpected twist of the plot revives the film. The film is considered, by many, to be one of the greatest silent horror films made and very influential to other directors.  

Catherine Bray observes, "Pre-dating even early genre landmarks Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1926) by some distance, Robert Wiene's silent film is both influential and one of a kind." (Bray unspecified date) Bray notifies Wiene's success within the silent film era and the effects it has had on other classic expressionist films.
Fig. 2
The thick clothing and heavy make-up portrayed adds to the theatrical gothic theme, which is reflected within the set design. Nick Helditch states, "Melodrama was the norm in silent cinema where the relationship between characters had to be communicated with gesture. "Caligari" creates a charcoal-drawn world that accommodates these extravagant mannerisms with heavy make-up and dark costumes intensifying the attitudes of the players. The shadowy symbolism that resulted is at odds with the movies being made across the Atlantic then and now, showing that cinema was well suited to fabulous psychotic dramas." (Helditch 2001) Helditch expresses the fact that other directors have used Wiene's film to influence their own works. He also considers the use of costume and the dramatic impact it successfully creates.
Fig. 3
Many of the backdrops were produced by card and charcoal, Wiene shows the power of simplicity within the environment. The fact that the scenes are never symmetrical adds to the crazed feel of the film and enhances an eerie atmosphere to its audience. The way a simple few lines can impact so strongly is astonishing. Roger Ebert suggests, "The sets are presented, as they must be, in mostly longer shots, establishing their spiky and ragged points and edges. The visual environment plays like a wilderness of blades; the effect is to deny the characters any place of safety or rest. It isn't surprising that the "Caligari" set design inspired so few other films, although its camera angles, lighting and drama can clearly be seen throughout film noir . . ." (Ebert 2001) Ebert notes the intriguing set design of the film and states its impact. The close-up shots in particular keep the audience's focused and makes the character of Dr Caligari questionable and almost delirious.

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Wiene, Robert (1920) The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari Movie Poster. At: (Accessed on:26/10/11)

Figure 2. Wiene, Robert (1920) Cesare and Jane. At: (Accessed on:26/10/11)

Figure 3. Wiene, Robert (1920) Cesare and Jane. At: (Accessed on:26/10/11)


Film4 Catherine Bray (unspecified date) Review. At: (Accessed on:26/10/11)

BBC Nick Hilditch (2001) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari) (1920). At: (Accessed on:26/10/11)

Roger Ebert (2009) The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). At: (Accessed on:26/10/11)

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