The Influence of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" on Film Noir and Horror Film

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In “Weimar Cinema and After”, Thomas Elsaesser explains expressionism as not only the style of films created in the early 1920s, but as a “generic term for most of the art cinema of the Weimar Republic in Germany, and beyond Germany, echoing down film history across the periods and genres, turning up in the description of Universal horror films of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s.” The influence that Elsaesser is referring to is of great importance to both film noir and horror films. This influence can be seen simply through looking at Robert Wiene’s exemplary film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), and its astounding influence on both film noir and horror films, looking at the example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

The time period between the German Expressionist and film noir styles also reveals much of the reason for the influence of German Expressionism on film noir. After Hitler came into power in January 1933, many German film producers, directors, writers, actors and music composers who were working in the Expressionist style, were expelled and exiled from Germany. This physical spread of German Expressionism to countries like the United States of America, and the influence that these émigrés had on Hollywood filmmaking is significant. The resulting blend of styles was captured in the existence of film noir. Film noir, as Elsaesser writes, “[combined] the haunted screen of the early 1920s with the lure of the sinful metropolis Berlin of the late 1920s… mixed with the angst of German émigrés during the 1930s and 40s as they contemplated personal tragedies and national disaster.”

Before one can understand the influence of German Expressionism, one must understand the qualities of the style, which are exemplified in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This film features all of the primary elements we associate with German Expressionist films. The character at the heart of this story of madness, paranoia and obsession, is Dr. Caligari, an evil anti-hero. He hypnotizes his somnambulist Cesare to commit the nightly murders of his enemies, which thus forces the exploration of the criminal underworld. The film is set on a fairground overlooking rooftops and in an insane asylum, in short: typical urban settings. The story is creepy, and deals with murders and monsters in the human form. It deals with the idea of being insane, and of living in an insane world.

However, the most striking element is how the production design of the film portrays this insanity. Stairways, railings, windows, doors and mirrors are strangely and starkly angular, and jut out into scenes, resulting in an unsettling effect. These architectural elements were often painted on flats, by the designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. Frames are skewed and compositions are unbalanced. Foreboding shadows and silhouettes, created by chiaroscuro lighting or actual painting, have a presence of their own in the film, and produce an uneasy tension throughout the film. The acting is expressionist, meaning that the outer reflects the inner (Louw 2008). Make-up and costumes are exaggerated – particularly of the two “evil” characters, Dr. Caligari and Cesare. The film is cut with intertitles, creating a splintered atmosphere (Louw 2008). These extremely stylized aspects of the film are justified by the fact that the story is told from a subjective point of view. It is as if the mise-en-scene comes from the mind of a raging mad-man. This distorted perspective reflects the state of the human psychic condition, and the haunted world of the protagonist.

Film noir came about in the 1940s, and is categorized as starting with the 1941 film by John Huston, The Maltese Falcon, and lasting a golden age until Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, made in 1958 (Dirks 2008). Film noir is a French term, literally meaning “black cinema”. It refers to the dark nature of films which fall into this style, which is the defining characteristic of film noir, and was highly...
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