Today, people are free to develop different attitudes towards Germany and its role in history and international relationships. In the middle of the 20th century, many countries disrespected Germans because of their aggressive intentions, the support of the war, and globally spread violence. However, the same period was characterized by significant contributions of the country to the growth of the film industry. In their book, Thompson and Bordwell wrote a chapter to the discussion of German industry’s expansion and impact.1 In this essay, Chapter Five will be summarized in connection with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the best examples of German Expressionism, and its penetration to the film industry.
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The situation in Germany after the events of World War I is the main topic of the chapter under analysis. The authors underlined that despite the fact that the country suffered a number of serious economic, social, and political problems, its film industry was significantly developed.2 One of the main reasons for its growth was the government’s ban on foreign movies and the necessity to focus on local companies and production. There was no competition with international markets, and filmmaking was based on real access to available resources. It is possible to divide the chapter into several meaningful sections. The emergence of new genres in cinema occurred at the beginning of the 1920s. Technological updates were observed in the middle of the 1920s. Organizational challenges and the creation of New Objectivity challenged the end of the decade.
Three main trends were identified and gained prominence in German postwar cinema during the 1920s. First, spectacles were popular due to their rich settings and the possibility to spend large amounts of money without thinking about consequences. People did not believe that it was rational to save money and could afford expensive backlots and new studio facilities.3 However, historical spectators were replaced as soon as inflation questions were solved. The Expressionist Movement captured public attention due to its strange distorted settings, jerky movements, dark unrealistic themes, and lean buildings. Expressionism in movies was focused on a new type of mise-en-scene with distortion and exaggeration. Within a short period, such movies as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Kriemhild’s Revenge gain national and then international popularity as successful but radical experiments. Filmmakers preferred horror narratives, simple editing, and typical functional camerawork. The final genre in the German movie industry was Kammerspiel or “chamber-drama” that focused on a few characters, detailed content, and a small number of settings.4 Shattered, Backstairs, and St. Sylvester’s Eve were the best-known movies of this genre. All three styles broke prejudices to Germans abroad and gained recognition.
Technological progress, improved production values, false perspectives, and foreign influences changed the film industry in the country in the middle of the 1920s. The end of inflation brought a new stable currency, which made it cheaper to buy movies abroad. A new distribution company, Parufamet, strengthened American control in German filmmaking. Even a new trend known as New Objectivity that promoted street films did not save the industry. Fresh intentions to reduce horror stories and add more street behaviors were denied by modern German political powers. The impact of Hollywood grew, promoting German filmmaking for international purposes.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the German Film Industry
German Expressionism is usually associated with the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and its impact on society. Its main characteristics are “large space, the simplification of details, the emphasis on making the objects’ leading lines as striking as possible”.5 One should admit that this film is a real horror even for a modern viewer who has already watched a number of scary movies. Camera movements, the choice of settings, and even actors’ makeup are impressive. Its novelty was the desire to change public imagination and use strange distorted buildings as one of the methods to provoke the necessary emotional response.6 In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, each character corresponded to grotesque images, including unrealistic colors with dark outlines, dead-like faces, and grimaces that scared.7 The beginning of the movie distracted and alerted because of the tone that “there are spirits… there are all around us” was set.8 However, the movie was not a shock for audiences and critiques but a demonstration of filmmakers’ abilities.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a successful intention to improve the industry and show that German society was not destroyed. This movie was an example of how a new wave of Expressionism should look. Stylistic distortion, untraditional use of mise-en-scene, and the attention to shadows as a source of additional distortion influenced the audience and made the movie remarkable in its genre.9 Finally, the movements of actors/actress and close camera shots of made-up faces strengthened the madman story and proved the quality of German directors in the 1920s.
Expressionist movies took a remarkable place in the history of the German film industry. Despite the common expectations that the outcomes of World War I destroyed the nation and prolonged sufferings, filmmakers demonstrated how to gain benefits from international bans and social concerns. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the most successful examples of how an Expressionist movie should look like. It met the standards of camera movements, editing, narrative, and makeup. The 1920s turned out to be a challenging period for German society but a great opportunity for the film industry to determine its potential.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Directed by Robert Wiene. Performed by Werner Krauss, Friedrich Fehér, Conrad Veidt, and Lil Dagover. Weimar Republic: Decla-Bioscop, 1920. DVD.
Kurtz, Rudolf. Expressionism and Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010.
- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), 86.
- Thompson and Bordwell, Film Industry, 86.
- Thompson and Bordwell, Film Industry, 88.
- Ibid., 94.
- Rudolf Kurtz, Expressionism and Film, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), 55.
- Kurtz, Expressionism and Film, 56.
- Thompson and Bordwell, Film Industry, 90.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, perf. Werner Krauss, Friedrich Fehér, Conrad Veidt, and Lil Dagover (Weimar Republic: Decla-Bioscop, 1920), DVD.
- Thompson and Bordwell, Film Industry, 90-92.