Expressions in Horror: Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu

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Two of the earliest examples of German Expressionism in film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are classics remembered as some of the best horror films of all time. These two films, directed by Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau respectively, share several key aspects in common, while still retaining their own uniqueness that has left people debating which film is paramount, even nearly a century after their releases. This paper will examine these similarities and differences, and will seek address them in light of the German Expressionist movement they each resonate.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu both tell the story of a young German man’s subjection to the madness of a dark overlord with seemingly supernatural powers. In Caligari, a young man named Cesare, who is a somnambulist (or sleep walker) is controlled by the powers of a crazy doctor, who orders him to kill innocent victims. In Nosferatu, a young man named Thomas Harker is sent to sell property to Count Dracula, a vampire who comes to haunt his life and town after becoming obsessed with Hutter’s wife, Nina. Though while these films share some key components in common, no one could ever call the two films the same.

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is defined by the films stage-like quality, due mostly to the unique set it is shot on. An example of German Expressionism, the director creates a world of stark lines, sharp angles, darkness, and shadows bringing the viewer into a surreal world. Unnaturally angled houses line crooked cobblestone roads. Misshapen rooms contain demented furniture. Rooftops are acutely angled to the sides. It is radically warped scenery, and helps create a genuine expressionist set. F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu, however, is shot in real world environments, but employs shadows to make small rooms appear larger then life, adding suspense and a feel of supernaturalism to the movie. The Count’s castle perhaps best conveys the expressionistic form, with its...
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