Friday, 18 November 2016

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Fig 1: Film Poster

Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) is a psychological thriller, which explores insanity and madness. The story follows a tale told by Francis about Dr. Caligari, a lunatic hypnotist, who travels to carnivals with a Cesare, who is a somnambulist (sleep-walker) as they arrive to a small German town. Upon their arrival and numerous shows, mysterious murders happen, including Francis's friend Alan, which leads to him suspecting the events were caused by the two travellers. Francis tries to expose Dr. Caligari and Cesare for the crimes throughout the story, which at the end of the film takes an unexpected turn. At the last part of the film, the audience is shocked to find out that Francis is a patient at a mental asylum, with Dr. Caligari as his doctor. This new information creates a different angle Francis's tale. "His reliability as a source is only called into question in the final scenes." & "Francis is in fact mad and his story totally or partially delusional" (White, unknown)

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Fig 2: Francis and an investigator investigating the sleeping Cesare
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is a black-and-white, silent, horror movie, which was filmed in 1919 (released in 1920)  in Germany. The framing of this movie is highly recognised, as it is analysed in Siegfried Kracauer's post-World War I. German Cinema book From Caligari to Hitler - A Psychological History of German Film (1947). "The original story was an account of real horrors: Wiene's version transforms that account into a chimera concocted and narrated by the mentally deranged Francis." (Kracauer, 1947:83) This suggest that the film is following the lines of the original story of horror and insanity with a mad doctor. however there were changed in the script and they included themes that showed the Germans' struggles, stress and overall psychic state with expressions of that time period. "...the fear that individual freedom will lead to rampant chaos which can only be constrained by submission to tyrannical authority." (White, unknown) The movie took the form of German expressionism style, which arguably is (unlikely) because they wanted the film to look different from other national films, but there is hardly any evidence supporting this idea; while as mentioned above, it  expresses Germany's difficult state after the war.

The film's visual concept and environments are both related to German expressionist style, as well as follows the story and what is happening on the screen. "...the film is structured in such a way that it represents contradictory ways of understanding the central sequence of events" (White, unknown) At the beginning of the story the environment is fairly 'normal' as it can be, even though (partly because of low budget) most of the background and building were artificial; mainly looking like 2 dimensional paintings. With the story flowing the scenes and their environment become more sharp, with strange shapes and abstract. For example, the viewers are show the scene where Jane is in her room, the surrounding looks feminine, with softer shapes, curves, light and white shades and long white veil  like fabric draped over some furniture. However, the mental asylum is very disfigures, whit confusing 'zig-zag' lines, and dark, gloomy shades. "Caligari's Expressionist style ultimately led to the dark shadows and sharp angles of the film..." (RottenTomatoes, 2000)
Image result for das cabinet des dr caligari jane room
Fig 3: Cesare kidnapping Jane from her room
Furthermore the acting, make-up and lighting adds to the story and creates different moods and communicate different information. Noticeably, when a character is acting strangely or 'insane' they tend to be shown with dark, sharp make-up with strong outlines and heavy around the eyes. this is very noticeable, when during the majority of the film Dr. Caligari is seen with dark make-up to empathise his dark mental state, while at the end shot, when Francis is put into the asylum Dr. Caligari is seen without the dark make-up, looking sane and normal. As the story flows the lighting and movements of the characters get more dramatic, the facial expressions are highly over exaggerated, so the story can be expressed more understandably.
Image result for das cabinet des dr caligari asylum
Fig 4: Close-up of Cesare, with strong lighting and dark make-up
Fig 5: Cesare and Jane (over exaggerated expressions and movements)

Overall, this movie is a huge milestone in film history and in German Expressionism. This was one of the first movies that had an unexpected plots and successfully explored the human mind and insanity, with a unique setting that has since influences other films to experiment with sets and design. The story can be slightly terrifying as it shows a man going insane, however it engages the audience, with the fascinating story of how pieces of clues in the story slowly start to make sense, just to be turned upside down with another twist of events.


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  1. Excellent review Greta :)
    Just a couple of points - make sure that your font is consistent throughout; you have several different typefaces and sizes going on here, most likely where you have copied from a source... just make sure that once you have written your review, you go back through and change it so that it is all the same.
    If you are unsure of the date of a quote you can use s.d instead, so (White,s.d.) for example.

    1. When I was writing it, it seemed like all typefaces were the same, next time I will pay more attention to it. Thanks for the feedback! :)