German Expressionism, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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German Expressionism

“… the expressionist film is primarily a visual phenomenon, a mise-en-scene of fear and desire. Internal conflicts and ambivalences are projected on to an external world that has become foreign and strange, a process that finds expression in the destabilization of the subject at the center of the narrative…” (Hake, 2002: 31).

In light of the following observation by Hake, this essay will be looking at her statement and how it can be applied to the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari within the boarders of German Expressionisim. To better illustrate my argument I shall be looking at key scenes in the film and analyzing them in detail. This analysis will hope to demonstrate the link between the observation made by hake and German Expressionism movement within the film.

German Expressionism was an artist movement founded in Germany during the beginning stages of the First World War and reached its peak during the 1920’s. The German expressionistic movement included artistic works from literature to architecture, art and cinema, it mirrored the development of Expressionism across the rest of northern and central Europe. Works of art in which the representation of reality is distorted for the sake of conveying an inner vision characterized the movement of expressionism. In this avant-garde movement the artist hopes to transform or reinterpret reality rather than seeking to imitate it. German Expressionism in film uses these characteristics of the art movement as a means to express oneself, in terms of its surroundings and circumstances, as well as a platform to build upon values, in its own unique way. The following quote best describes the techniques and characteristics of a German expressionistic film, “These films were united by highly stylized visuals, strange asymmetrical camera angles, atmospheric lighting and harsh contrasts between dark and light. Shadows and silhouettes were an important feature of expressionism, to the extent that they were actually painted on to the sets in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The narrative of these films also mirrored the movement’s visual properties; they dealt with themes of darkness and cynicism. “Often somber in mood and featuring characters from a corrupt underworld of crime, the films’ dramatic effects produced motifs of claustrophobia and paranoia.” This narrative structure had a substantial influence on the Hollywood film noir genre, typified by films by Bacall and Bogart. German Expressionistic film’s visual and narrative characteristics, such as low-key lighting and visual distortion, also had a convincing influence on the silent horror film genre and its redeeming features and characteristics.

The social and economic conditions in Germany during the German Expressionism timeframe had an overwhelming influence on the movement and how it evolved. The period during World War 1 had a substantial impact on the economic and social conditions within Germany. The increasingly isolated German government had taken drastic measures to insure the smothering of anti-Germany propaganda, it outright banned most of the foreign films entering the country. This lead to the establishment of the UFA (Universum Film A.G.) whose official mission was "… to advertise Germany according to German directives. These asked not only for direct screen propaganda, but also for films characteristic of German culture and films serving the purpose of national education". This political interference did not however affect the public’s response to cinema, with a steady rise in inflation, due to the war’s economic effects on the nation, the demand for cinemas and film production increased. Germans were attending cinemas more freely due to the fact that they knew their moneys worth was slowly diminishing.

The ban on foreign film imports was lifted in 1916 and Germany was once again reconnected to the international film industry. Although now reconnected with the rest of the...
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