In the period of Germany’s Weimar Republic, a unique and volatile pre- and post-war era within a window of less than 20 years, the German people were experiencing a torrent of new ideological, social, and political views. What was once normal was giving away to the new and unusual; what was typically viewed as quintessentially German was now being inundated by outside influences, by strange and foreign people and their imported cultural baggage. Whether or not these elements were as directly and obviously portrayed in the cinema as some like Siegfreid Kracauer would argue, there can be little doubt that film, this most popular, class-spanning and innovative of the arts, was indisputably influenced to one degree or another by this state of the German populous. The times were surely changing, and in no film like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari 1920) do we get a sense of what this meant for the cinema, let alone the German films of the period.
Like other historical filmic movements (Italian Neo-Realism, Soviet montage cinema, and the French Nouvelle Vague, as just some famous examples), German Expressionist films take their cue from what was happening in that respective country, in that particular time. The familiar and the strange were at odds in the real world, and they were the same in the cinematic.
One only has to look at the still frames in any cinema history book to see where this strangeness was most frequently represented in many Weimar-era German films; the set, the mise-en-scene, is the most commonly discussed and easily recognized feature of these expressionist films, Caligari being a prime example. The pervading sense of uneasiness, anxiousness, and, as Sigmund Freud calls it in his essay “The Uncanny,” the unheimlich, is taken from the minds of the German population and given an outlet in the locales of Caligari. There was something shocking by having this style represented in the cinema, in its visuals and its narratives. There, on the big screen, exported across the world, these films had a technique never before seen in the movies.
The set design of Caligari was a blending of real locations, that is, places that do and can exist (offices, the home, a fair), with a pattern and look that is anything but normal. This contrast between the standard and the surreal is where much of the film gets its power and where we see the German feelings express themselves. Places that the German people we accustomed to were exaggerated and skewed in such a way that an unnerving sense of horror and torment were brought to the forefront. The labyrinthine townscape in Caligari, the incessant and repetitive rotation of scenic elements (causing, according to Freud, “a feeling … that recalls the helplessness we experience in certain dream-states”) and the irregular and warped images of domestication created a mood on screen that matched that of the audience.
A dizzying array of pointed lines and sharp light/dark contrasts made parts of Caligari seem as though we were in the mind of a distraught individual (which, perhaps, we are). While the characters in the film, most specifically Dr. Caligari and Cesare, can be deemed “strange,” in their behavior, their look, and the danger they bring to the Holstenwall town, certain parts of the film show that the setting is warped in ways that do not only relate to them – for example, the city clerk’s office and the embellished chairs.
While the German inhabitants were physically and mentally in a condition of unrest, so too is the film. Locations and most characters are in a constant state of abnormal movement. Sidewalks lead to places they shouldn’t, people (most memorably Cesare) move in jarring strides, and even the structure of the film, beginning and ending with a framing story that encompasses a possibly false primary story, causes the entire film to twist and turn and topple upon itself. The set develops a life of its own, giving the sense of mobility. We see this in Freud’s essay when he cites E. Jentsch, making a note of “‘doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate.’”
It is also worth noting the increased modernity that was overtaking Germany at the time, especially in terms of urbanization and artificiality. This is shown to great effect in Caligari, chiefly in its lighting style (painted shafts, for instance) and in the fact that the whole film, indeed most all German films of this expressionist movement, was shot indoors on a stage. This is a further distancing of the real.
It is remarkable that during this period of turmoil and strife these great filmic artists were able to tap into the popular zeitgeist and create works of such telling beauty – “The uncanny that we find in fiction … actually deserves to be considered separately. It is above all much richer than what we know from experience; it embraces the whole of this and something else besides, something that is wanting in real life,” says Freud. Their far-reaching influence spanned the globe, most prominently in the approach to light- and shadow-play seen later in the American films noir. All the same, even if the German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had not had such a meaningful and lasting cinematic power, what stands alone as simply the films of this Weimar epoch are extremely valuable as art and as statements of a culture. To varying degrees, the films of this time are a revealing window into the Germans’ minds, souls, fears, and anxieties.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny,” trans. David McLintock.
London: Penguin, 2003: 123-162.