Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Film Review - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene (1920)

Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) has aged incredibly well. In spite of being a silent film, even millennials will struggle not to draw clear parallels between Caligari and contemporary cinema. The character design of Tim Burton's iconic Edward Scissorshands (1990), as portrayed by Johnny Depp, reeks of Caligari's Cesare, both aesthetically and in his withdrawn awkwardness, not to mention the striking resemblance of the building design in his Corpse Bride (2005) to the crazed angularity of the town of Holstenwall. Calagari's narrative can be seen to have a direct influence on films as recent as Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010), which further explored the theme of the externalisation of the internal constructs of a madman and leant heavily on a nearly identical twist ending, and it can even be argued that it (Caligari) provides an antithetical basis for films like Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), which examines the impact of a sane man having madness projected onto him, versus the insane projecting their reality onto a sane world. Caligari's influence is pervasive to this day.

More striking though than its enduring impact, is how effectively even a contemporary audience, spoilt by decades of films replete with spoken dialogue and vast repetoires of SFX, can engage with and digest its relatively complex, yet soundless narrative. There are three key visual and narrative elements that enable it to succeed even 96 years later.

Firstly, the unwaveringly persistent visual aesthetic. Wiene does not so much employ the more subtle mise-en-scène audiences have now grown accustomed to, as punch viewers in the face with geometric unrealism. Nearly all of Caligari's buildings, structures, and even objects of furniture are inescapably presented as illogically angular forms, oppresively looming over each scene and its characters, cutting off the skyline, and creating a vague sense of claustrophobia. The iconic scene in which the Somnambulist, Cesare, doggedly sets off along the zig-zag of Holstenwall's skyline, heroine tucked under his arm (see fig.1.), inspires a sense of the sinister, not just due to the inherent nastiness of kidnapping, nor Cesare's discomfortingly slender figure, but because the environment itself narrows and jerks in an illogical, visually jarring manner. Intriguely however, ignoring the prologue, the film initially maintains an almost light-hearted tone in spite of the negative connotations of the off-kilter mise-en-scène. That is because this is not Disney. A shape language has been established in film in the past century which tells us that sharp, angular imagery is inherently of the sinister, the evil, the aggressive, but one could argue that Caligari predates this rigid language, which in turn allows it to defy the jaded expectations of the contemporary audience. This contradiction of expectation leads into Caligari's second key element.

Figure.1 Cesare escaping across the rooftops of Holstenwall as he kidnaps the heroine, Jane (1920)
The geometric awkwardness of Caligari may loan itself to inspiring angst in its audience, but this is not by design. Its actual purpose is arguably that of transition; the distorted forms, representative of the broken psyche of the film's hero, provide the audience with visual anchors to the real world, and the world of the hero's internal narrative, allowing a clear distinction between those scenes set in reality, which feature curves and perpendicular lines, and those set in the protagonist Francis' mind. An ideal comparison would be to Joseph Kosinski's Tron: Legacy (2010). Divisive as stereoscopic 3D in cinema may be, it was used beautifully in Tron: Legacy to differentiate between the setting of the real world and the digital - its opening and end scenes are shot in 2D, whereas all the scenes set in Tron's digital world of 'The Grid' are shot in stereoscopic 3D. So subtle is this transition that many audiences would have failed to notice, but this particular transition literally added an extra dimension to the world of 'The Grid', ironically making it more 'real' than the real world setting of the film's 2D scenes. Caligari achieved this 90 years prior merely by distorting our expectations of recognisable shapes - the audience inevitably becomes more engaged in the world which challenges their established schemas of a sane world.

This theory is further supported by a direct comparison of the appearance of Dr. Caligari himself (later revealed to be the director of the insane asylum in which Francis is revealed to be interned). In Francis' mind Dr. Caligari is exaggerated, his face shadowed and obscured by a needlessly thick glasses frame, dark bags beneath his eyes, his movements furtive and defensive (see fig.2.). These are the primary elements of what visually makes him an insidious, untrustworthy character. In reality Dr. Caligari is revealed to be a well-kempt, unassuming man with a professional air - entirely unthreatening, cleansed of his negative attributes. The distorted geometric theme of Francis' mind is not used to contribute to Dr. Caligari's perceived vileness at any point.

Figure 2. Jane, lured by Dr. Caligari, encounters Cesare the Somnambulist (1920)
The third and final element is the narrative twist. Even now, an effective twist is rare in films. It requires an impeccable set-up that refuses to clue in the audience until the last possible moment. Caligari achieves this with it's unassuming opening scene, in which Francis, seated on a bench outdoors, watches a woman walk past, of whom he states to the man seated next to him is "My betrothed..." He pauses "What she and I have experienced is yet more remarkable than the story you have told me. I will tell you..." (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920)

A moment beforehand, the man whom Francis is addressing had explained that he had been driven from his home and family by spirits. This is a more than acceptable statement since it is of course a film. The audience has suspended its disbelief and is perfectly willing to accept that spirits are real. But, at the end of the film, this tale of tragedy, murder, and duplicity in which the audience has invested real emotion in our hero, and developed a healthy hatred of the antagonists, we snap back to the real world and it is revealed that Francis, and not Dr. Caligari, is the mental patient.
Image result for caligari opening scene
Figure 3. Opening scene (1920)
In a glorious instant, the viewer is catapulted in reverse back through their narrative journey. The opening scene; the man on the bench, assaulted by spirits, is not a poor misbegotten soul - he is a lunatic, accompanied by Francis - chief lunatic incarnate, observing a third lunatic wander past (see fig.3.). Their sufferings are designs of their own fractured psyches. Francis has not been revealing his past, but weaving his personal fantasy, projecting his psychosis onto prevalent figures in his real life, his betrothed - the attractive female inmate Jane, the Somnambulist - yet another inmate, the notorious Dr. Caligari - the director of the asylum, the man responsible for Francis' treatment. It is notable that with regard to the antagonists, in reality Cesare is a younger, more attractive man, from Francis' perspective perhaps a potential love rival, and Dr. Caligari, the authoritarian figure within the asylum and therefore Cesare's master, the reason for Cesare's threatening presence, and a force actively working against Francis - hence the 'theft' of Jane, by Cesare upon being ordered to by Dr. Caligari. The narrative hasn't been pure fantasy; Francis has been projecting legitimate fears and concerns onto the people he perceives as their direct cause, the murders which occur early in the narrative are perhaps a representation of other asylum inmates placed in solitary confinement at the behest of Dr. Caligari.

A contemporary audience will struggle to bear the slower pacing of this aging film, but even now, the film sustains its audience by the hook and underlying purpose of its unique aesthetic. It pushes their expectations off-centre and holds them captive, denying the audience the visual conformity their brains are vying to find. And although audiences are spoilt wannabe films critics, the pacing is immediately forgiven for that instant of realisation in which the entire narrative is reinvented in the blink of an eye - as though it has been averaged out. The cathartic shock of the epiphany provided by the narrative twist is no less potent in this older medium than in recent films such as Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) and The Prestige (2006), or M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000). Until contemporary culture has worn these devices so thin as to be unbearably predictable, Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari will continue to endure and surprise.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) Directed by Robert Wiene
Edward Scissorhands (1990) Directed by Tim Burton
Corpse Bride (2005) Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Shutter Island (2010) Directed by Martin Scorsese
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) Directed by Miloš Forman
Tron: Legacy (2010) Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Inception (2010) Directed by Christopher Nolan
The Prestige (2006) Directed by Christopher Nolan
Unbreakable (2000) Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

List of Illustrations
Figure.1 Cesare escaping across the rooftops of Holstenwall as he kidnaps the heroine, Jane (1920) [Film Still] At: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-X8qwz9iQUHI/VCPF-8YOguI/AAAAAAAAAI0/5QBm_2aYKiM/s1600/dr.-caligari-1.jpg (Accessed on 20.09.2016)
Figure.2 Jane, lured by Dr. Caligari, encounters Cesare the Somnambulist (1920) [Film Still] At: http://teegardennash.com/media/*MS/CabinetOfDr.Caligari-1.jpg (Accessed on 20.09.16)
Figure.3 Opening Scene (1920) [Film Still] At: http://i1.wp.com/moviessilently.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/caligari-06.jpg (Accessed on 20.09.2016)


  1. What an excellent start to your film reviews, Joel :)

    Thoughtful and well-written, this bodes very well for the future!
    Just a couple of little pointers for the next one; you should support your own discussions with at least 3 quotes from recognised published sources. These are referenced using the Harvard method (as you have done with the illustrations)and form the bibliography. You don't need to include the other film names in the bibliography unless you are directly quoting from them - it is enough to note the director's name and the year within the text, as you have done here.

    Once again, a cracking start!

  2. Hi Joel!

    Welcome to the course! Hope your first few weeks have been exciting!

    I'm Joe, a 2nd year (the guy that co-presented that rather riveting C.A.A Survival guide to you last Friday). Phil asked me to pop by and offer assistance for your first few weeks, So here I am. Think of me as an additional person to call for help if you need it.

    My blog is over at tromacorp.blogspot.co.uk

    If you’re in a fix and need to see evidence of how someone else has tackled a bit of work, you can see all of my work for inspiration from “Invisible Cities” here.


    & my film reviews here


    Wow! you don't play around at reviews. You're clearly a lover of Cinema, and have been very generous with your words. I'll second what Jackie said, you can see some examples of the "3 quotations" and the Harvard method of referencing either here


    Or even easier, just have a look on the previous link I posted to my own film reviews.

    Nice stuff though Joel! :)