DR. CALIGARI AND THE EXPRESSIONIST MISE-EN-SCENE
In this paper, I am going to explain what German expressionism is and how it occurred. Then, I will try to show its applications on paintings. I will also explain that expressionism has a big impact on cinema. At the end of my paper, I will try to enhance this impact by giving examples from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ‘s mise-en-scene elements.
Expressionism was a cultural movement which first occurred in Germany at the start of 20th century. This movement had a very big influence on poetry, painting. Actually it is really hard to define because it has roots both from Baroque dynamism and Gothic distortion as well as it is in the domain of modernism. The main characteristics of expressionism are use of anti-naturalistic, abstract and symbolic devices like picture sequences and also distorting the reality. These traits are the signifiers of emotions and inner world of the artist rather than simply reflecting the nature as it is. So, expressionist art is not objective as in the naturalistic or positivistic account. It is totally subjective.
Expressionism first occurred before the First World War. However, it was very popular during Weimer period which is in between the end of the World War I and the rise of Hitler. The failure Germany got after the World War I, made a very destructive impact on the its economy. This obviously made a remarkable decay in the competition of Germany with other nations especially America. This period is popular for having the highest point of intellectual and artistic production. Robert Wiene who is the director of the Dr. Caligari is an artist from this period. Although the great brains are in Germany waiting for to produce artistic and intellectual works, the hard economic situation is a great obstacle on them.
Especially, the film industry was affected badly. Hollywood was using the technological advancements in their movies which German film industry could not compete with. So, they developed a new movement which was full of symbolisms, namely expressionism. As I said above, expressionism is a way to reflect reality but from artist’s subjective point of view. In cinema, this can be achieved by playing with mise-en-scene ( set design, lighting and shadows, acting, costumes, make-up) or cinematography ( the camera angle).
Now, let me explain how mise-en-scene could make a film expressionist by giving examples from Dr. Caligari. The movie is based highly on stylization of acting through exaggerations. Most of the time we see the characters acting as a graphical element in the set design. The heavy make-up of characters, especially the somnambulist Cesare’s, are also the signifiers of expressionism. The inner world of the characters, their being evil, good, innocence or guilt, is given reflected to their appearances by costume and make-up. We first see Caligari in a black mantle when the viewer supposed that he was the evil. However, after we learn that the real mad and crazy character is Francis, we see Caligari in a white doctor uniform, symbolizing the innocence and goodness. We also see Jane in his bed full of white pillows and lace, symbolizing her innocence and being unaware of the evil coming to her. On the other hand, we see Cesare as a dark character with heavy make-up obscure in darkness. His dead-like face expression is as a warning to us.
The whole set design in the movie is a part of expressionist movement. The most obvious and interesting element in the movie is the background décor. First of all, it is apparent that the film is not took place in a real environment. The constructed setting is so remarkable that watching a film is always reminded to the audience which is the goal of expressionist cinema. Twisted shapes of objects like windows, buildings and even the inter titles. Because the audience see the movie from a mad man’s eyes, Francis, we are encountered with the twisted and distorted nature. This really makes the audience go in the inner world of the character which is the main point that expressionism highlights. The most popular thing in Caligari is the use of expressionist paintings as background décor. Besides being a reminder of its artificiality, the paintings are already counted as expressionist in themselves. Expressionist painting in itself tries to capture the human emotions and inner world by means of using intense colors and abstraction. The composition is dynamic in these paintings. The spectator could get the subjective idea of the painter by looking at an expressionist painting. Expressionist painters are not trying to give the reality as it is rather they choose to define it in terms of what they want to say. What is done in Caligari’s background décor is exactly this. The twisted buildings and mountains, the curved branches of trees as a graphical motif are served to give the impression of a mad man’s point of view. The sharp and angular shapes in the background when Cesare tried to attack on Jane is the symbol of his sinister intentions and it is given to the audience by expressionist paintings too.
Exaggerated and specific use of light and shadows help the audience to grasp the inner world of the characters and to get the right emotions toward the situation. In the scene where Cesare was going to kidnap Jane, he is shown as a total black shadow on the wall. That scene really disclosures Cesare’s sinister feelings and intentions. One scene in the movie is also very worth to state: when Francis went to the police station, the light fell down to the stairs was made by paint.
The cinematography, in a sense, also makes contribution to Caligari’s being an expressionist movie. As I mentioned above, the reality and nature is tried to be destructed in expressionist cinema. This can be done by camera angle too. The oblique camera angle gives the same impression as the expressionist paintings used as a décor.To sum up, expressionist movement has a remarkable impact on cinema, especially in Weimer period. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari directed by Wiene is one of the best examples to this movement. Its mise-en-scene as well as cinematography helps the viewers getting the characters’ and director’s point of view