The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 silent horror film directed by the German Robert Wiene. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential films of all time and, according to film theorists and art historians, a classical example of the school of German expressionism. From this viewpoint, the greater influence of the film can be traced to the sense in which some of the fundamental techniques of German expressionism are displayed in the film, techniques which provided an entirely new way of conceiving cinema.
Arguably, the fact that the film is a horror film ultimately accentuates the elements of German expressionism that constitute the work. This is to say that German expressionism has been defined historically as a school that aims to present an individual or subjective viewpoint on reality. In other words, expressionism is not concerned with providing some type of objective picture of how the world is. It wants to look inside personal feelings and interpretations of the world, understanding how our emotions and meanings can perhaps create entirely different visions of what existence is.
This is why the horror narrative of the film suits the German expressionist concept. For example, the film revolves around a series of murders and a confusing psychological situation where the viewer does not know what is fantasy and what is reality. This is further accented by the fact that the film is told in a flashback style. With this decision, the director directly references key points of expressionism, such as the emphasis on the subjective perspective. The viewer understands that the story is being told through the subjective perspective of one character and that this will, in turn, generate its own view of reality. The viewer is gripped by a subjective as opposed to objective narrative.
The decisions of scenography and costumography also heighten this subjective element. There is almost an unreal sense to the environment of Dr. Caligari. For example, the architecture of the film is distorted, not resembling any type of everyday buildings. Canvas backdrops used for scenery also further underscore this lack of realism. Through these techniques, the viewer begins to understand that what is being communicated is the viewpoint of the central character. What is important is his subjective meanings and interpretations, and this is reflected in how he sees the entire world around him, from the scenography to the costumography of the film .The fact that the latter are bizarre and surreal emphasizes this subjectivity.
Arguably, one of the key techniques used in the film that show its expressionist character is that of its conclusion, which employs the twist ending. What the narrator of the tale thinks to be true is in fact a grand hallucination. There are no murders; there is no diabolical Dr. Caligari. Rather, Dr. Caligari is a psychiatric doctor and Francis, who tells the story, is one of his patients. This is a clear instance of how subjective perspectives can completely twist events. It is therefore at the very end of the film that the expressionist narrative breaks down: we are left with the objective truth of the situation, that it was all a hallucination. But this revealing of the truth at the end of the story heightens the power of the subjective perspective which constitutes the majority of the film. We therefore begin to understand to what extent there can be a sharp break between what is objectively true and subjectively true: these are entirely different worlds.
Wiene’s film thus uses expressionist motifs on numerous levels. With this he shows the imaginative potential of the expressionist school. When we detach ourselves from the commitment to describing reality “objectively”, the mundane can become the fantastic and the compelling.