Art as Life’s Abstraction of Reality

Paper by Bethany Burns.

Art can be seen as a reflection of many things, when it is reflected through the struggle of a society as a whole it can often be interpreted as the psychological representation of that people’s conflict. One culture to endure one of the most brutal struggles through war and segregation were the people left in Germany post WWII. These citizens found themselves amidst the rise of a dictator with no alternative but to support him or face a torturous death. It was this experience that enabled the people of Germany to birth a movement of powerful art which echoed the horrors they witnessed during the war. A post war country can rebuild itself in a myriad of ways and in the same way a government can try and rebuild the people’s moral, art can also be utilized to have the same impact. The Expressionist art movement in many ways was inevitable as this type of art was birthed from a disturbing place of darkness and despair. Following the two dimensional mediums of wood cuttings, paintings, and novels, Expressionist films added the final element of social connection to the movement. Expressionism is an all encompassing movement of all forms of art band left a steadfast impact on the evolving film industry. By the time Hitler was removed from power it was almost non existent in Germany. “It wasn’t until the 1920s, though, that German horror — and German Expressionism — hit its creative stride. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was a landmark film that has become the epitome of the Expressionist movement” (Doll)

In the silent film t director Robert Wiene visually explores the concepts of madness, paranoia, and hysteria as they had been experienced by the people living in post war Germany. The backlash of WWII impacted the remaining citizens of Germany with astonishing detriment, limiting their resources for both artistic production as well as the simplicities of life. Wiene took a complicated narrative and created a world that could not exist without his despondent perspective. His stylistic choices of mise-en-scene create a dream like form of reality meant to portray the emotional state of isolation and despair the people in his country were experiencing. By utilizing an intentionally high contrast, and two dimensional distorted set designs paired with highly theatrical costuming and casting he pulls the audience into a world and a perspective never before seen within film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave German Expressionism a steadfast and memorable place within the film industry, while inspiring other filmmaker’s world wide. By breaking down this film visually both the implicit and explicit meanings are revealed. During this time film was utilized as one of many coping mechanisms for grim reality in which they existed. The people of Germany could use film to escape into a multitude of worlds, even dreary fantasies. The meaning of the film became equally as if not more important than the visual on the screen, “The film image must become graphic art” stated set designer and film maker Hermann Warm.(Eisner) So directors were able to create graphic works of art based on experience, emotion, and the limitations of a country ravaged by war.

Visual style is one of the most distinct elements of film that categorizes its genre. “To the expressionist, it would be absurd to reproduce the world as purely and simply as it is.” (Eisner)
The greatest factor determining this element within Expressionism was the budgetary limits of post war Germany. The film industry during this time received no support, and many limitations from government in an effort to discourage any further production of Nazi propaganda. “German film was not nearly as technologically or thematically sophisticated as other European film. Until 1910, most German films consisted of short, pornographic snippets and crude day-in-the-life anecdotes.” (Doll) Germany had been completely cut off from the rest of the world as far as cinematic imports so young film makers began to develop their own style which birthed the short lived movement of Expressionist films. Post war film makers were forced to creatively utilize the resources available to them which rose from their theatrical backgrounds and experience with building their own sets and creating their own worlds. The visual style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is just that, a two dimensional set painted and built as though it were to be performed in a theater for a live audience. This element is one of the things that sets this film apart from the others being produced around the same time.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film that wraps one mans fantasy into the story of another mans madness. Thematically and visually this film embodies everything that lies behind the Expressionist movement. The beginning of the film heralds the story of a magician who travels from town to town with his somnambulist slave, whom he sends out into the night to kill innocent victims in their sleep. The second part of the story is not revealed until the very end where the madness that lies within one mans mind has created the madness that is another mans life story. This overlapping madness draws the viewer into a form of their own psyche that must find the truth themselves in either side of the story. There are two scene’s back to back in which this revelation of tyranny and madness are most prevalent within the film.

As the audience is introduced to the character of Dr. Caligari, his demeanor is mysterious and sinister. He walks with hunched over stance and requires the assistance of a cane. His eyes are squinted behind a round set of glasses, and a malicious intent resonates from his stares as he is received poorly by the town’s clerk. Coincidentally, the clerk was the first man to be murdered later that evening. Dr. Caligari’s disposition expresses a malicious intention and darkness to match his dreary surface. His cloak drapes long over his shoulders and his top hat hides the almost bald top of his head of thin white hair. He does not have a common appearance for a traveling magician, rather that of a devilish sorcerer. In the scene that follows a more cunning side of Dr. Caligari is revealed at the town fair. He shifts his poise to embody the magician yet the devilish aspect of his personality remains. The audience see’s him hobble into his exhibit within the fair and emerged with a strong and confident man. Once he has gained the attention of the townsfolk and lured them into his tent he stands erect with no assistance from the cane he heavily relied on in the scene before. His shoulders are broad and his eyes wide as he vigorously waves a bell through the air creating a grand spectacle for all to see. He waves the cane about and speaks intensely at the crowd who have all come to witness his somnambulist creature Cesare. This juxtaposition of the two sides of Dr. Caligari suggests that there is always more than what meets the eye. In a way his character could also be interpreted as a form of the way the people of Germany viewed Hitler. Many of his supporters saw him as a man whose intentions seemed to align with that of his people and who would save the German race from impurities. Similar to the plot of the film, it was not until it was too late that he revealed the demon that was hidden inside.

Variation in shot length, framing and camera angle also served their respective purposes throughout the film. In each of the scene’s where Dr. Caligari is introduced to the film the editing includes a wide variety of close up, medium and wide shots to encompass the importance of the relationship of the environment as well as the behaviors characters. A distinct moment that reveals some implied characteristics a lot about Caligari’s personality occur during a series of shots in which the editing switches back and forth between wide shots of each room and close ups of the Dr.’s face with a tight vignette and high contrast to draw the viewer’s attention to his expressions. It is in these moments the director is able to direct the narrative by showcasing action and reaction with the close up and wide shots of the Dr.’s face. The looming frustration creates an ominous motive for his malicious behavior throughout the story. Since this is a silent film it was even more important for the actors to amplify their expressions and gestures as though they were on a stage in front of a live audience.

Vignette filters and high contrast lighting were also used to exemplify this effect with all of the main characters in the film. This effect was utilized as a pattern throughout the film to exemplify important moments of intense feeling. Another set of filters used to create a separation of times of day were color filters placed over the film stock. Blue filters were placed during the night time hours of the story, while a red hue signifies the day. The simplicity of this filter effect characterizes another example of the budgetary limitations filmmakers of this movement were faced with. The most obvious portrayal of this element was the stationary placement of the camera. In each scene the camera’s placement matched that of where an audience would sit during a live theatrical performance. Only during a close up reaction shot of a character did the film’s form come to light. In many ways the editing and shot variation played a key role in making the audience feel as though the were truly watching a film and not a recording of a staged theater performance.

The element of this film that created the most influential exposition of Expressionism was the mise-en-scene. Each environment in it’s own way was lacked in any form of realism, which was what the Expressionist movement aimed to do. Expressionist artist rejected all notions of the realist movement happening concurrently in other parts of Europe. Each set of this film was developed and built two dimensionally as though it was created for a live production rather than a film. When the audience is introduced to Dr. Caligari, the hallway he walks through appears as though it will cave in on itself and the paint on the walls is of no coherent design. The camera sits stationary at the end of the long hallway as the Dr. hobbles towards it. This same design concept is utilized throughout the entire film. Houses sit at distorted angles, rooftops come to jagged points, and windows are long oblong shapes. Many of the backgrounds of various rooms and walls are simply painted backdrops, while light reflections on the ground are also sections of paint rather than light. Furniture such as chairs and desks sit so abnormally tall that when a character is placed in them their bent stance matches the inverted form of their already awkward environment. The costuming and heavy make up is another facet creating the theatrical and dream like appeal of the film. The facial make up of the main actors in the film is almost a ghostly pale white with dark circles around the eyes. This is the type of make up design once would see in a live performance and was highly uncommon in film at the time. This dramatic make up design paired with long dark draped clothing gave each character the visual appearance similar to that of a ghost. The character of Cesare the Somnambulist is the only one whose clothes are form fitting, thus giving him a mummy like visual appeal. The stark contrast of pale faces and dark clothing gives each character an artificial appeal to match the symbolic nature of their emotional states.

The abstraction of this film creates an essence of the objects meant to “evoke mystery, alienation, disharmony, hallucination, dreams, extreme emotional states, destabilization” (Roberts) The film became art because the root of it was so disconnected and different from what art had been, and created a new concept of what art could be. It challenged the conventions of reality and offered a new perspective of a life that many would never experience. Other films from the Expressionist movement such as Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang’s M were heavily influenced by Wiene’s work. Nosferatu, an alternative version to Dracula matches Caligari both thematically and visually with a stark high contrast environment paired with a killer who is a monster. M has a more realistic visual feel with the underlying themes of madness and tyranny. Both followed in suit with the genre’s nature of mise-en-scene and dark narrative. The patterns reinforce the concept of film and abstraction as art.

Since the advent of film artists of many forms have utilized it as a way to share stories, opinions, thoughts, facts, and experiences. It is a medium of art that can be interpreted in more ways than it can be produced. The ability to create a masterpiece within extreme conditions and limitations is truly a feat of ingenious capacity. German Expressionist films were birthed from exactly this type of environment and would serve as the inspiration for the film Noir movement within the United States and Britain. A prime example of this can be seen throughout the career of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who in 1924 was sent to Berlin to work at UFA Studios. Hitchcock himself stated “I have acquired a strong German influence by working at the UFA studios Berlin” (Doll) Hitchcock became a master at his craft and was one of the most influential filmmakers of the Noir movement.

The beauty of art is that it’s richness is reflected by the struggle of the people who create it, and all forms of art often portray history from the widest variety of perspectives. German Expressionism is completely unique to because of it’s countries circumstance. Expressionist films bring this era to life in the most explicit ways. These films serve as a window into a time and place that most people will never experience in their lifetime. Expressionism as a whole showcases the power of art and its capacity to aid in the healing of a depraved people and a war torn nation.

Works Cited :

Doll, Merrick. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” The Moderism Lab at Yale University.
Yale University Dec. 2009. Web.

Eisner, Lotte.; The Haunted Screen :Expressionism in the German Cinema and the influence of Max Reinhardt. Translated ed Vol. 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California 1969. Print

Roberts, Ian.: German Expressionist Cinema: The World of Light and Shadow, Wallflower Publishing, 2008. Print

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