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Critical Analysis of Cabinet of Dr.Caligari

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1706 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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European art cinema can be understood as a form of cinema in which was popular through the 1960’s and is based on a rejection of techniques seen in classical Hollywood cinema today. Having many diverse forms of European art cinema throughout Europe, it makes use of various narrative and stylistic techniques. Differentiating from classical Hollywood forms that were occurring around the same time period, European art cinema avoids common heavily structured narrative and continuity based editing that we see in classical Hollywood. One of the major European art cinema movements is German Expressionism, a distorted depiction of reality.

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The German Expressionist movement in films took place before World War Two, in the early 1920’s and uses depiction of reality to add emotional effect. Starting as an art movement, expressionist art attempted to show a warped interpretation of the world, evoking different moods or thoughts. These expressionist artists did not care if their pieces were the typical aesthetically pleasing compositions, but instead created art which in return produced powerful reactions from onlookers. As said by Badley, Palmer and Schneider

 “…the emerging expressionist cinema drew on methods found in the theatre, painting and graphic arts, such as stylised sets, exaggerated acting, distortions of space, heavy use of shadows, irregular compositions that emphasise oblique lines, as well as specifically filmic techniques like low-key lighting, dutch angles and composition in depth, to create a vision that pointedly challenges the authority of classical representation.” (2005, p. 16)

This movement derived from the post war mentality of wanting to break free and expose current social conditions. German Expressionist films as the time normally contained themes of madness, identity and insanity and as the full extent of the war rose, the horror genre significantly increased.

To date, Robert Wiene’s 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari is still one of the most widely recognised films, which perfectly reflects German expressionist cinema. The story of the film centres on Francis, who through flashbacks recounts a thrilling tale of Dr.Caligari, a mad scientist and his somnambulist, Cesare to commit murder in the German villages he passes through. Following his mythical story, it concludes with a shocking ending, revealing to the audience that narrator Francis is in fact a patient who is being treated in an insane asylum. His story of Dr.Caligari and somnambulist Cesare, turn out to be his psychiatrist and fellow patients, leaving the audience to question the validity of his story. (Budd, M 1979, pg.35)

Being a silent film, it is famous for its outstanding use of expressionist art, in both an artistic and narrative way (elaborate- something about use of drawn on scene or lighting explain how he does it). The style and tone of The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari are the most prominent features of director Robert Wiene’s silent film, which horrified and captivated the German public. Still today, viewers are still fascinated by the themes and visual style of the film. Near the beginning of the film in which Dr. Caligari is requesting a permit to the town clerk and the scene where Cesare attempts to murder Jane, are two prime examples that demonstrate that The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari is a quintessential illustration of German Expressionist cinema.

One of the most memorable aspects is the way in which Wiene presents the story to us; full of darkness and obscurity. Working with Hermann Warm to achieve this gloomy town, they chose to paint majority of the background props instead of constructing them, differing to the usual set design used in other films during the realist time period. In turn this gave the film an unnatural feel, from streets spiralling off to nowhere, buildings and landscape crooked and sharp pointed or unusual shaped objects throughout. The set was designed as a representation of a small German rural town. Weine and Warm, diverged from the normal modern practices to a construction of a world of nightmarish jiggered lines and strange patterns. Being a silent film they used expressionism to narrate a story which the viewers aren’t sure if it is real of unreal.   

“What Cabinet of Dr. Caligari thus offers is a most effective use of an avantgarde technique, certainly one that proved visually striking and that affirmed a connection between film and other art forms.” (Badley, Palmer and Schneider 2005, p. 21)

Following World War One, in Germany the sense of apprehension, mistrust and uneasiness, were at an all-time high. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, were examples of art imitating life. German Expressionism was widely used in film, visual art and literature during that time period.

Wiene captures the subjective viewpoints of the main characters by designing the film sets to replicate how they often are in the theatre. The creative stylised scenery can portray fear and horror within the characters from Wiene’s use of dark angles and artistic set design. From the different shapes and angles, it can be observed as the characters thoughts and emotions. These illusions help to explore an inner reality beneath the surface (White, J 2016, p.10).

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As the film progresses, the disturbing landscape of the town reveals the inner mental madness of the narrator. Again, the use of lines in Jane’s house displays her character by lacking sharp dark lines and is replaced by curved, softer designs. An example of this is the scene where Cesare attempts to murder Jane, but instead kidnaps her. When we first see Jane asleep in her bedroom, the viewer can notice the softer, rounded shapes. Weine has used soft draping materials over Jane’s bed and through her clothing to convey a sense of serenity. When Cesare exists Jane’s house, carrying her up a hill, the sharp-angles and distorted artistic elements encourages the audience to comprehend the scenery as a reflection on trench warfare imagery. (This portrays the feeling of disharmony and mental uncertainty after the recent tragedies of World War One). All of these aspects combined sway the German community to relate to films such as The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, due to their emotional state of fear and distrust.

An aspect that the audience can recognise is the portrayal of the endless thoughts the German public face under the authority of the government. In the first scene, the town clerk and Dr.Caligari set the scene. The initial situation between the two characters contains a social aspect, involving status differences. When asking for a permit to present his exhibit at the fair, Dr.Caligari is treated with humiliation and insult by the town clerk, demonstrating the hierarchy between the two characters.

This is a clear example of the political critiques that is seen throughout the German Expressionism time. Taking a closer look, we can see the town clerk sitting at his desk writing, his seat being extremely tall and towering over the standing Dr. Caligari. Just from this set design, it shows a clear difference between the man in power; the town clerk, and the working man; Dr. Caligari, perfectly representing the hierarchy of authoritative figures in Germany.

The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari demonstrates an effective visual style by which we are able to notice the popular themes featured in many German Expressionist films during that time period. Many films were occupied with themes of madness, identity and insanity, when combining these characteristics it normally resulted in dark, dull films with clear subtext to them.

From the intricate set design, viewers can understand how the setting may represent emotional conflict within the characters. Wiene’s choice of acutely angled shapes and absurd sharp pointed objects, create a claustrophobic and evil tone, which can be translated onto the screen to emphasise emotions of fear and horror, while also adding in contrast of the softer tones used in scenes where Jane is present. Having both dark and lighter tones, it can create balance and reflect an obvious separation of emotions; innocence and evil.

Creating a story through the perspective of a madman, characters are seen to have distorted behaviours. The extravagant, unrealistic and absurd acting portrays the insanity of their mental state. In the second scene, the viewer is immediately conscious of the whiteness of Jane’s nightgown and the drapes on her bed, contrasting with the darker surroundings. Jane’s character depicts a sense of innocence and vulnerability from the use of soft lighting. In contrast, both Cesare and Dr.Caligari have darker, sharp tones and slow movements. This can reflect their evil and malicious inner minds from the choice of makeup and costume.

The illusions and atmosphere created in the film hugely differ from the current Hollywood film styles that we see to this day. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, profoundly influences current films with the exploration of grim lighting, turning objects into expressionistic shadows. Using both visual and expressionist styles, Wiene portrays the mental pressure the German citizens faced during the 1920’s by a higher authoritarian power and has created a prime example of European Art Cinema through German Expressionism.


  • Badley, L, Palmer, R & Schneider, S 2005, Traditions in World Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  • White, J, 2016, European Art Cinema, Routledge, London, eBooks.
  • Budd, M, 1979, Retrospective Narration: Re-Reading The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Michigan Publishing (University of Michigan Library), Ann Arbor.


  • Wiene, R (dir.) 1920, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, motion picture, UFA GmbH.


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