student journal entries

Geeta Dayal
The scenery is odd, futuristic, and jagged in ``The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.'' Backgrounds are distorted and sharp. The lighting emphasizes shadows, and the camera angles also add to the very angled set design. The characters' makeup is very overdone, adding to the effect. Cesare's heavy eye makeup, white face paint, dark clothes, and dark lipstick add to the frightening, larger than life effect of the movie. It is also clear by Dr. Caligari's appearance that he is not normal. His face is wrinkled and dirty, giving him a demented, spooky aura. All of these were elements of the style known as German expressionism.

These shadows that were so instrumental in Expressionist film help the film achieve its title that some have given it, that of the ``first horror film.'' When Cesare kills a person in the movie, we see his shadow, not him. We see his dark shadow looming over the man's soft, white, angular bed. The horrific effect that the shadows give would be echoed later by several other horror movies, including the notable film Nosferatu, where we see the frightful, angular shadow of Nosferatu ascending the stairs to meet his prey. In both movies, we see that the roles of shadows and the nighttime hours are very important in promoting the horror of the movie. The film capitalizes on one of the most terrible thoughts that one could ever think of-the prophecy of certain death within hours.

Another important aspect is that expressionist art was intensely psychological; it was not concerned with being realistic. It depicted the world the way it felt, not the way it looked. These Expressionist concepts made the film especially suited towards one of the primary themes of the movie, that of madness.

Madness is central to the movie. Cesare is a somnambulist who has recently been admitted to Caligari's mental institution. Dr. Caligari tours with Cesare, exhibiting him at freak shows at the Holstenwall Fair of ``sideshows, wonders, marvels, and miracles.'' One of the first sentences we see in the film is ``Spirits surround me.'' We immediately feel this strange paranoid, insane tension in the film.

During Francis' search to find his sweetheart, Jane, who is attacked by Cesare but manages to escape, Francis goes to the insane asylum, hoping to find Cesare, and discovers that the director of the asylum is none other than Dr. Caligari. We also find out that Francis himself is a patient in a mental asylum, as is Cesare. But it is not only in asylum scenes that madness is felt. Everywhere in the movie, from Caligari's actions, to his control of Cesare, to the irrational killing, to the scenery, makes us feel that insanity is one of the major parts of this film.

Coupled with this theme of insanity is the theme of truth. What is wrong and what is right in this film? At the end of the film, when we see the mad director in a straitjacket, Francis concludes his story. The viewer sees that he himself is also within that mental institution. He is mad, and he is obsessed with Dr. Caligari. We then see him, as well, being confined in a cell.

This was one of the most fantastic silent films I have ever seen. The amazing jagged scenery, the shocking role reversals, and the convoluted, freakish storyline kept me engrossed for the entirety of the film.

Vikas Sodhani

I enjoyed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari because it was the first silent film that I saw, and it incorporated theatrics that are not seen in the movies of today. Since ideas cannot be expressed through the spoken word, expressions, gestures, and physical features were exaggerated in the film to convey both the characters emotions and sentiments.

Many of the characters are heavily clad in makeup. Dr. Caligari and Cesare have black outlines around their eyes and makeup on their hands. Close up scenes on the characters faces bring out the eye makeup and details that allows the viewer to sense the characters without the use of words. The movements of Caligari depict him as an old mischievous miser. Cesare's slow movements, which are void of expression, convey his characteristics of a vile somnambulist. Even the backdrops are painted and add to the expression of the characters and the scenes.

A major theme of the film is that of madness which in one form manifests itself through the senseless murder of the characters. Cesare, the somnambulist, would follow out the orders of Dr. Caligari and kill at will. The film was released right after Germany had lost World War I. To the German society, millions of innocent civilians were brutally killed for no apparent reason. They began to harbor feelings of discontent towards authority. Cesare is the typical civilian soldier sent out to war with the orders to kill. He is a product of authority, who obeys his master and follows out commands, much like a soldier. Cesare first kills the town clerk, which is representative of the disillusionment felt towards authority after the war. Also Dr. Caligari, the authority figure of Cesare, is seen as a type of mad scientist, parallel to society's view of military leaders from the World War who knowingly sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths.

I thought that the film was a very good indicator of the attitudes many people had during the period after the World War. It was even more striking for me because it incorporated a form of expressionism in a silent film, which was something new to me.

Derek Rinderknecht

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is a classic example of an expressionist movie. The distortion of reality and exaggeration that characterizes this genre, accompanied by the frame story from the perspective of Francis, are why I find this movie interesting.

The first scene reveals Francis and an unknown man having a conversation, sitting on a bench in the middle of a garden. The scenery is dreamlike and complements the entrance of Francis's betrothed.  Her appearance and motions are ghost-like. Francis establishes the plot of the frame story as he explains his betrothed's hardships to the man.  During the frame story all of the scenes have realistic props but the backgrounds are skewed. For example, the buildings and walls have striped contrasting colors, no corners meet at right angles, and all of the shadows are irregular. This is also noticeable when the cardboard town is pictured in the background, which is so fictitious it seems more suitable for Sesame Street.

These aspects of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari culminate into the overall mysteryof the story: who is insane, Francis or Caligari? Through whose perception do we interpret reality?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be interpreted in many ways. I believe the control of Dr. Caligari over Cesare, his sonambulist, depicts the power that one man can possess when he controls the rational thoughts of others. This idea can be accounted for in a modern context in light of the recent massive cult suicides, where one person takes Caligari's influence to the extreme and convinces his followers to take their own lives.