Oh God, Art School – The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

Look what I found on my hard drive! Old school work. So exciting. When I was at DigiPen for my one year of art school I took a couple film classes. Film was my favorite subject, aside from the hand-drawn animation classes I took. The teacher was a director, he did music videos and commercials I think, though I can’t quite remember.

I thought it might be fun to look over them and see what my brain was like four years ago. Sounds like I was pretty smart and slightly pretentious! For insights into my art school brain, read on! Present-day comments in Red!


The Mise-En-Scene of the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

By Megan Koznek

Movies are outward expressions of our inner selves. When people make movies, they’re sharing a part of themselves with the audience: their world-view, their struggles, their triumphs, the paradigms of the place and time they live in.

I do not believe this can be said of all movies, especially now, in the age of the mass produced summer blockbuster, (oh past Megan, you could not imagine how much worse this has gotten) but in Germany in the 1920’s this was certainly true.

Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer conceived of the original story of Caligari. The  story could, perhaps, have been written by different men, in a different time and place, but postwar Germany in the early 1900’s was fertile soil indeed for the germination of an idea for a revolutionary film where “reason overpowers unreasonable power, insane authority is symbolically abolished” (Kracauer).

Caligari (as originally intended by Janowitz and Mayer), is a revolutionary tale.

Themes of revolutionary spirit and a distrust of authority are present throughout the film, in both subtle and unsubtle ways. For example, many of the chairs in the film are very tall and stylized. A set of long, winding stairs leads to Doctor Caligari’s office in the asylum (the position of his office on the top floor indicating his position of authority there), and there are many steps leading up to the police station, the policemen themselves being guardians of authority.

And of course there are the revolutionary themes present in the plot. Francis, the protagonist, reveals the horrific truth of the crimes committed by Dr. Caligari, a man in a position of great authority. By revealing Caligari’s devious exploits, Francis “exposed the madness inherent in authority” (Kracauer) and defeated him.

The revolutionary nature of the film is irreversibly changed, however, by the two scenes book-ending the main plot of the movie. Despite vigorous protest by the authors of the film, scenes were added at the beginning and end of the film by Wiene, the director, which turned “a revolutionary film…into a conformist one” (Kracauer) (weird upending of the traditional narrative, where it is the studio interfering with the director and ruining movies) by transforming the main story into a tale told by Francis, who is revealed in the framing story to be mentally deranged and in the care of Dr. Caligari, who is, in fact, a kind doctor and not the evil mad man Francis sees him to be (SPOILERS!).

The French coined the term “Caligarisme” in response to this film. The term refers to a postwar world “seemingly all upside-down” (Kracauer).

German expressionism is a striking aesthetic which, when applied to the sets in a film, perfectly echo the reality of the chaotic condition of postwar Germany.

Expressionism in German cinema during the postwar period represented a retreat into the self of the German filmmakers, and indeed in those people who patronized expressionist cinema. By constructing the whole of their film’s reality, right down to the villages, streets, mountains and meadows, Germans were able to feel as though they had control over their situations (at least in the illusionary world of film).

Three expressionist artists constructed the world of Caligari. They were Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann.

Hermann Warm believed that “films must be drawings brought to life” (Kracauer). This formula is very present in the construction of the world of Caligari. This film presents its mise-en-scene so forcefully with its completely constructed reality that the viewer is entirely immersed in the reality of the film. The viewer sees nothing, experiences nothing, which the filmmakers do not wish them to.

The jagged edges present everywhere, the painted shadows which exist in disharmony with actual lighting effects, the zigzag delineations which efface all rules of perspective, the way that space in the film often dwindles down to a flat plane…all of these things enhance the aura of madness, of the fantastical, which are present in the film. Some reviewers at the time the film came out presented the expressionist sets as “nothing more than the adequate translation of a madman’s fantasy into pictorial terms” (Kracauer).

I would venture to say that the expressionist elements of the film do not merely represent a mad man’s reality, but the reality of the authors of the film, the director, and the people living in Germany in the postwar era. To many people of that time, their everyday reality must have felt much like the nightmare of a madman.

Citations: Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. 1947. Print.

I don’t have much to say about this essay! I think I wrote this pretty well. Full disclosure, I did very well in this class. The teacher said at one point that I was his best student (not to brag).

For anyone considering watching The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, it’s a good movie, but it is black and white and silent (with speech cards), and that is a tough style for modern day sensibilities to handle. The production design is super cool, as you can see in the screen shot at the start of the article the backgrounds are completely man-made, and are meant to look like it. It does set the mood pretty well, and sets the film apart from modern movies that want to look real. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari embraces it’s falseness and that is refreshing.


About mckoznek

Thinking about going to art school. And traveling the world.
This entry was posted in Art, Art School, DigiPen, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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