Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr.

Caligari (1920)

Fig. 1 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Film Poster

Robert Wiene’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is a film that introduced the idea of twist ending to cinema. The film’s narrative takes place as a flashback sequence in the mind of character Francis (Friedrich Frehér) where the audience is made to believe they are witnessing the deranged happenings following the arrival of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). However, this is not the case and in a somewhat similar idea to Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ the audience is made to question what is real until the big reveal at the end. The questioning of reality does not just take place in the storyline; the set itself plays a key role in the depiction of Wiene’s world. The irrational layouts of sets except ironically those of the asylum transport the audience deeper into the mad world and unknowingly deeper into Francis’ strange mind. Their acute and steep angles connote the teetering on the edge of reality, the effect being ‘an unnatural world, in which city officials teeter on impossibly high chairs, triangular doors open at odd angles, and buildings teeter in such a way as to defy gravity… giving the impression that even the town itself has descended into madness.’ (Merriam, 2008) The fact that the only sane part of the film is represented to be the asylum is extremely binary opposing of the way in which an everyday person would view it compared to their town, and this gives us an insight into how an asylum inmate may view us.

Fig. 2 Buildings that defy gravity

The backdrops and tone of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ do in ways seem to play with our own minds especially due to some elements such as the mix matched patterning of the sets going off into aimless directions connoting the struggle taking place in Francis’ mind but also the presence of the film’s horror factor. As the film unfolds these patterns seem more definite and occupant on the scenes and could be implicative of Cesare’s (Conrad Veidt) mayhem throughout the town. The lack of never moving shadows and their strange appearances as well as the silhouetting of Cesare throughout the film further explore the horror factor with their unusualness being suggestive of the psychological tampering of Francis. However, the exaggerated actors alongside this asymmetrical world seem to fit into one aspect of reality, the reality of horror. Whereas, an audience cannot relate to ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ in the way of reality in everyday life, the fearfulness and nightmare inside us can see Wiene’s creation as their own horror. The sets deny the characters but also the audience the feeling of safety or rest where the idea of being trapped in the far from normal world is too much especially when the characters seem accustomed to it. ‘”Caligari” creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.’ (Ebert, 2009)

Fig. 3 Cesare’s trail

Wiene incorporates the cultural and historical moments of the times in ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ especially linking it to the Great War and the physical but also psychological effects it had. If the German expressionist patterns on the buildings are not seen as representative of Cesare’s destruction of Holstenwall or Francis’ on going mind battle by some, instead they are viewed as suggestive of the scarring of ordinary people and their homes the Great War left behind. The

crooked buildings and irrational shapes add to this idea with them representing the trauma and the physical weakening of the town and its occupants who aim to carry on in ignorance; this isn’t something they want to remember. ‘Adopting a highly abstract and provocatively primitive form that mimics the physical and mental desert the first technological war had left behind. By extending the concept of shell shock into the very form of the film, we realize to what extent trauma has fractured and shattered both narration and mise en scene.’ (Perry, 2006)

Ebert, R. (2009) 3 (Accessed 26/10/11) Merriam, J. (2008) (Accessed 26/10/11) Perry, T. (2006) Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. U.S.A. Indiana University Press (Accessed 26/10/11)

List of Illustrations
Fig. 1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Film Poster From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Directed by: Robert Wiene. [film poster] On (Accessed 26/10/11) Fig. 2. Buildings that defy gravity (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Directed by: Robert Wiene. [film still] On (Accessed 26/10/11) Fig. 3. Cesare’s trail (1920) From: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Directed by: Robert Wiene. [film still] On (Accessed 26/10/11)

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