Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog


THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) is a beginning and an end in itself.  It is generally regarded as the first example of German expressionism – that manifestation of the tortured Germanic soul emerging in the aftermath of WWI.  Characteristics of the movement include weird, twisted sets, heavy use of shadows, extreme camera angles, highly externalized acting and macabre story elements.  All of these ingredients were utilized to accentuate the psychological aspects of the character’s inner worlds as opposed to the world as it is usually perceived. 

CALIGARI, directed by Robert Wiene, tells the chipper tale of a carnival hypnotist (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who does his murderous bidding.  Everything – and I mean everything – is played to the hilt.  The filmmakers even went so far as to paint shadows on the already deformed sets designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reiman.  And what sets they are…jagged, twisted angles, contorted as if in some madman’s dream or delusion.  Settings where only hellish deeds can take place.  And indeed they do… 

CALIGARI was the beginning of the movement but also a bit of a cul-de-sac, for its abstractions were far more extreme (and psychologically disorienting) than those of any of the films that followed it.  All of the above traits of expressionism had their fullest realization in CALIGARI.  It is as if the movement burned itself out with the first film, the subsequent entries having far less imagination or guts.  The village settings of THE GOLEM (1920) were oppressive but they had their roots in traditional production design, as did those of NOSFERATU (1922).  To find a German film as daring as CALIGARI we must travel to the era of post expressionism, the kammerspiel or “intimate drama”, and experience THE LAST LAUGH (1924) which, like Wiene’s film, was written by Carl Mayer.  Mayer’s contribution to THE LAST LAUGH was unique in screenwriting history in that he developed a detailed shooting guide, complete with precise instructions on camera placement and movement-instructions which were followed religiously by the director F.W. Murnau.  The imagination employed was often astounding and Mayer’s efforts make the film the greatest of all post expressionist German works.  Though many of them were stylish and enormously entertaining, no such creativity was to be found in the expressionist films made in the wake of CALIGARI.  NOSFERATU is creepy beyond belief, probably the most powerful of the children of Caligari, but Murnau’s film is based on a famous novel (DRACULA).  This work of literature is arguably the greatest reason for the film’s success, even considering the magnificently ghoulish persona of Max Schreck, whose performance as the vampire is an unsurpassed treat. 

Of course this and many of the expressionist films played with techniques and themes introduced in CALIGARI.  Arthur Robison made an entire film on the subject of shadows, called appropriately enough WARNING SHADOWS.  This film of 1923 is about a jealous husband’s obsessions, revealed through the paranoid interpretations of shadows.  WAXWORKS (1924), directed by Paul Leni, takes us once again, into the world of the carnival side-show, as a poet concocts tales of intrigue surrounding such waxen figures as “Jack the Ripper”.  Fascinating and inventive stuff to be sure, but not the envelope pushing one might expect after CALIGARI. 

Despite its shortcomings as a movement, expressionism had a great influence on future filmmakers, especially Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.  Welles especially took glee in distorting his images, not so much with nightmarish sets but with wide-angle lenses and bizarre camera angles.  As for more modern films, there are touches of Germanic influence in films as varied as Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) and Scorsese’s and Paul Schrader’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), both psychologically dark and disturbing as well as visually flamboyant movies. 

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the early expressionist films is that they were an expression of the fears and anxieties of the German citizen of the time.  These fears quite possibly led to the rise of the Nazis.  Like Dr. Caligari, Hitler was a hypnotist and the German people were his Cesare – a nation of sleepwalkers carrying out the nasty business of a maniac.  In a few short years the horrors of expressionism had become a reality.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | expressionism, film directors, German cinema, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment