The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

So here are some things I’ve noticed from watching this film that really caught my eye…

In ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, there is this huge use of jagged landscapes, spiky objects, tilted walls and windows, blades, things looking sharp like knives, crooked asymmetry etc. I mean, even the title sequences’ font is jagged and sharp. This aesthetic not only makes this silent film stand out from other silent films that usually have a tendency to mirror reality, but the style in ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ is bizarre. It’s radical distortion. There’s no sense of safety, I feel as a viewer, I’m constantly sensing danger and darkness. Even the score of the film doesn’t have to tell me to be paranoid, the mise en scene tells me to be so.

The 2D sets definitely make a difference in the film. It heightens the eeriness of the film, and how far fetched we are from the norm. The crooked asymmetry of objects like windows could reflect a warped reality, a skewed perception, which totally makes sense. It’s very fitting. I believe this isn’t just a horror film that started the German Expressionist era, but a psychological fantasy type film. The make up on the actors is dramatic, especially the eye make up! It’s usually black around the eyes. Not only does this draw attention to the actors’ eyes, but it creates a motif – that we have to constantly be looking/watching what the actors’ eyes are telling what the audience needs to know. It’s eerie and I like it. Even the exaggerated movements of the actors create this out-of-the-norm experience for the audience. Everything is so heightened. The stakes feel so much higher with everything being so dramatic. Even the constant close up shots or extremely long takes with deep focus (to allow everything in the mise en scene to be in focus) with little editing is a smack in the face for the viewer. We have to be constantly aware of what is going on. The director is allowing us to see what he wants us to see. He wants us to see everything, or at least everything he wants us to know within the frame. The constant reminder of distorted vision through the physical background of shots is cinematic innovation, it highlights the protagonist’s skewed perception and draws the audience closer to the darker side of the human psyche, which I find fascinating.

The extreme distortions and discordant angles most definitely contribute to German Expressionism. I can totally see how ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ as well as other films foretold the rise of Nazism. I can see how the film is a reflection of unconventional composition of shots and wrong angles, the lost of once cherished values… Hitler = Caligari. German people = the sleepwalkers.

ALSO, the Iris Shot. Wiene is seriously into the iris shot. And I like to think this is why: it contributes to him allowing us the privilege to see what he wants us to see. He wants us to be aware. He wants us to look. He’s given that subjective perspective to focus on the intimate details that the audience can only see. The eyes say a lot and I guess Wiene wanted to stress on that gesture.

One thought on “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

  1. Christina Hendricks

    I meant to reply awhile ago and then forgot! I really like this blog post, which is why I asked you to talk about it in seminar. I think you bring out a number of very thought-provoking points about the set, makeup, and more. I love these sentences:

    “There’s no sense of safety, I feel as a viewer, I’m constantly sensing danger and darkness. Even the score of the film doesn’t have to tell me to be paranoid, the mise en scene tells me to be so.”

    Yes! Very well put. And your point about the iris shot is also really interesting. It is a way for a director to focus our eyes on something specific in the frame. It really coalesces everything down to a small section. I didn’t pay enough attention to what is being focused on when he opens or closes the iris, what is the “small part” before it opens or as it closes. But I bet one could get some interesting readings that way!

    Reply

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