Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, February 21, 2015

2/21 Expressionism: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, released worldwide 1921) begins with two men, one old one young, speaking in a garden. A woman soon walks into view. It appears as if something is wrong with these men and the  woman. The young main claims she is his betrothed. He says they have been through an incredible experience and then begins to tell a story. The movie ends with these men speaking in the garden as well, apparently insane. This is known as a "framing device" (like a picture frame holds a picture, the framing device "holds" the main story) and it was actually added on to the movie against the strong protests of the writers of the film who had a much different ending in mind.

This film became a huge success in Germany and throughout the rest of the world. It is considered one of the first horror films, but more importantly, it is considered to be one of the first expressionist films. Similar to expressionist painting, this style of film depicts the inner emotional state of the individual, expressed outwardly in the form of a dark and dangerous world. Expressionist cinema is notable for its use of shadows and light, and for the use of strange, irregularly shaped, jagged, stage sets and objects. In France, at the same time, Impressionist films were being made by French directors, which emphasized the changing perceptions of nature characteristic of Impressionist painting, by simulating this effect with the rapid movements of the camera, as this film review describes of Abel Gance's film Napoleon (1927).

Expressionism perhaps took this one step further by actually changing the external world itself to reflect the subjective sense of anxiety and dread permeating every aspect of German life, on the other hand the camera is much more stable and immobile compared to directors like Gance.

Both styles were highly influential. For example, in Japan both styles were borrowed from and experimented with in one of the first great Japanese films, A Page of Madness (1926) by Kinugasa Teinosuke (Japanese names have the surname or "last name" first, in the West it is Teinosuke Kinugasa):

The main narrative of the film opens on a strange painted landscape filled with sharply angled irregularly shaped objects, this is the fictional town of 'Holstenwall'. A strange old man appears, this is Dr. Caligari. A young man is seen in a small bedroom, the narrator's friend, Alan, he is leaning against an absurdly large chair. He goes out into the town which is also irregularly shaped, he sees an advertisement for the Holstenwall fair and goes to find his friend, Francis, the narrator at the beginning.

The scene switches back to Caligari. He goes to apply for a permit to operate his booth. He is rudely dismissed by a minor official sitting on an absurdly large stool.

The next scene opens on the fairground, focusing narrowly on the circular motion of the organ grinder before opening onto the whole fairgrounds with a large merry-go-round spinning in the background. The people seem to be enjoying themselves. Caligari reappears to promote his attraction. At the same time, the body of the official who was rude to Caligari is discovered. Francis and Alan walk into Caligari's tent. Caligari displays his attraction, the somnambulist (sleepwalker) Cesare, who Caligari says who tell your fortune for you. Alan asks how long he is to live. Cesare responds  "You die at dawn." Alan reacts with shock. They both leave, seemingly forgetting the prophecy, they are concerned with winning the love of Jane. At night, a shadow comes into Alan's room and kills him. The second murder so far.

When Francis learns of his friend's death, he immediately remembers the prophecy of the somnambulist and rushes off to alerts the authorities having to ascend an extremely large staircase to get to them. He also tells Jane. The authorities agree to investigate. At the same time another man is caught trying to commit a murder.

Caligari is feeding Cesare, when Francis and the police come demanding answers. They are just starting to question Caligari when they are informed they have captured a murder suspect and they leave. The suspect denies committing the other murders. Jane goes to the fair to find her father. She sees Caligari instead who shows her Cesare, he in turn seems to become interested in her before she becomes frightened and runs off.

Francis decides to investigate Caligari again on his own. He is spying on him through a window and it appears Cesare is in his coffin. However, at the same time Cesare is moving through the shadows on his way to see Jane. He sneaks in through her bedroom window and stands over her ready to stab her. However he is unable to and instead flees with her when Jane's attendants come into the room. This sets off a chase scene, Cesare drops Jane, then runs some more before falling off a cliff from exhaustion.

The police come back to Caligari's trailer and find Francis who sees he has been watching Cesare all night. It turns out that it was a mannequin instead. Caligari slips away in the confusion, but Francis follows him to a mental institution. He asks for assistance in finding Caligari, he is directed to the Institute's head. The head of the Institute is Caligari!

Francis enlists the help of some of the staff who go through Caligari's papers. They find that he is obsessed with the fictional story of an 11th century monk who was able to wield hypnotic powers over a sleepwalker. When, a sleepwalker was delivered to this hospital he began his plan on using the sleepwalker as his hypnotized slave to carry out murders and gain power.

The authorities recover Cesare's body from the ravine where he fell. They bring it to Caligari. He breaks down and becomes hysterical. The doctors restrain him and put him in a straight jacket and lock him up, with Francis looking on. The film then appears to fade out, but then returns to the opening scene in the garden. Apparently the whole story has been a fantasy invented by Francis who is a patient in the hospital along with Jane, Cesare, and Alan. Caligari is the real head of the institute, who is treating Francis and believes that now that Francis has given a name to his terror, he can begin to cure him now.

A proper understanding of Caligari as a cultural product requires an interpretation of at least three levels of meaning: the original screenplay of the writers; the finished product of the film; and the unintentional meaning that is revealed through the interpretation of the critic.

The screenplay for Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer.  Janowitz was not German but Czech, growing up in Prague. He inspiration for the script was a bizarre incident where he may have witnessed a murder. Visiting a fair in Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, one day in 1913 Janowitz was strolling on a street not coincidently named 'Holstenwall' when he heard laughter:
The laugh,  which apparently served to lure a young man, vanished somewhere in the shrubbery. When a short time later, the young man departed, another shadow, hidden until then in the bushes, suddenly emerged and moved along–as if on the scent of that laugh. Passing this uncanny shadow, Janowitz caught a glimpse of him: he looked like an average bourgeois. Darkness reabsorbed the man, and made further pursuit impossible. The following day big headlines in the local press announced: "Horrible sex crime on the Holstenwall! Young Gertrude...murdered." An obscure feeling that Gertrude might have been the girl of the fair impelled Janowitz to attend the victim's funeral. During the ceremony he suddenly had the sensation of discovering the murderer, who had not yet been captured. The man he suspected seemed to recognize him, too. It was the bourgeois–the shadow in the bushes (Kracauer 2004 p. 61).
Carl Mayer was an Austrian whose father, a businessman and a compulsive gambler, committed suicide when Mayer was 16. During the war he was examined several times by a psychiatrist, who Mayer did not like which gave him the inspiration for Caligari. 

Both men were veterans of the war and whose war experiences had turned both into committed pacifists. Caligari was then supposed to symbolize a world of insane murderous authorities and universal conscription (forced recruitment into the military) for total war, something which they experienced. Cesare is like all the young soldiers who are hypnotically drilled into becoming killing machines on the battlefield. The most subversive element in their script was the idea of the insane Caligari posing as a legitimate authority–worse, as an authority who judges the sanity of others. The same way in which people thought the German military was insane in bringing the country into war. 

This strangely subversive script was picked up by producer Erich Pommer, also the head of film studio Decla-Bioscop (bioscop being an old 19th word for film projector) which owned Babelsburg Studio, now the oldest film studio in the world. Pommer liked the script, but his decisions as the producer were mainly driven by the profit motive, especially international trade. In the early 1920s, Germany's economy was desperately struggling to survive. As part of the peace conditions in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to partially "deindustrialize" large segments of its economy, basically anything that could be used for military production, the problem is that almost everything produced in an industrial economy can be used for war purposes. Film was then seen as a very important export for Germany's economy. Pommer believed that this film could compete with American films, and it did Caligari was a big box office success in Berlin where it premiered in May 1920, and the next year in Paris and New York.

It was the director, Robert Weine, that added that surprise twist ending and the framing device.  It was the profit-motivated decision to have a surprise ending that completely transforms the message of the film. Francis is now the crazy person, and Caligari is really the hero. The anti-war message is removed and traditional authority is no longer criticized. Film, is unique among most of the major art forms because it is the most industrial and requires the largest division of labor to produce, and this is what leads to the often discussed "creative tensions" between writers, directors, actors, producers, etc, in the making of numerous films past and present. Usually, however, these tensions are resolved in favor of the profit motive. In this case: to add the more conservative "surprise" ending. The ending would presumably have the effect of reinforcing traditional authority assuming the audience receives the message in the intended way. 

The earliest "motion picture camera" was the kinetoscope invented by Thomas Edison in 1888. This early prototype only allowed one viewer at a time to watch a short film projected through the eye piece.

Edison's Kinetoscope. Note the eye-piece at the top that you would look into to see the film

The Lumière Brothers (Lumière means "light" in French) are generally credited with inventing the first real motion picture camera, the cinématograph (derived from the Greek: "writing in movement") or cinema, and for producing the first films shown to the public, in 1895.

At first film was seen as a passing fad but within a few years, the former magician George Méliès had introduced the first special effects into film. Méliès had been in the audience when the Lumière brothers had premiered their first films. 

Over the next several years most of the fundamentals of filmmaking were developed as directors found more ways to manipulate the camera and create images: tracking shots, reverse angles, close-ups, editing, etc. In twenty-five years the industry developed very quickly, especially in the U.S. The first U.S. film industry was actually based out of New Jersey where Edison's lab and factory were located. In the early 20th century, filmmakers wanting to make films but also wanting to avoid paying the licensing fees to Edison's company who owned all the cameras, moved out to a location that would be good for filming and also be as far away from Edison as possible. They settled in an undeveloped area of Southern California known as Hollywood. By 1915 Hollywood had already become the capital of the U.S. film industry. Artistically it was led by directors like D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, however by the 1920s the so-called "big five" studios had already become dominant in the industry: Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, RKO, and Columbia pictures, and later 20th Century Fox. Today all but RKO, which effectively went out of business in the 1950s, are the biggest film studios in the U.S. and the world.

Even as early as the 1920s the monopolistic tendencies of the "culture industries" were evident in Germany as well. Decla-Bioscop was the second largest film studio in Germany. In 1921 because of financial pressure from the U.S. film industry which had already become dominant in the world, Decla merged with the largest film studio in Germany, Universum Film AG (Ufa). AG stands for Aktiengesellschaft, a German word for corporation. Ufa was formed in 1917 as a government propaganda arm during the war. After 1916 the German government had banned foreign films and had heavily subsidized the German film industry, as a result the industry developed quickly. Ufa always maintained close ties with the state and large banks including the Deutsche Bank. The Deutsche Bank itself was formed in 1870 at the dawn of the German Empire and until WWI it was considered the largest bank in the world devoting itself mainly to international banking. 

Ufa was purchased in 1927 by Alfred Hugenberg (the 1920s version of Rupert Murdoch). Hugenberg became Reich Minister of Economy in Hitler's first Cabinet, but control passed quickly over to Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Ufa produced Nazi propaganda films during the war including Triumph of the Will. After the war, possession of Ufa's assets went to the communist East German state and was reincorporated as DEFA (Deutsche Film AG). DEFA went out of business after reunification in 1990, and Ufa was resurrected. Today it is owned by the Bertlesmann AG a major international media conglomerate.

Bertelsmann began as a publishing house in the 19th century, it was also the largest producer of Nazi propaganda during the war. Like most major media corporations however, its activities are diversified throughout all forms of media: print, radio, television, film, and now the internet. Bertlesmann's revenue in 2011 was €15 billion (about $20 billion dollars), putting it ahead of major U.S. multinational media corporations like CBS Corporation ($15 billion), and Viacom (which owns MTV, $14 billion). Although still trailing behind the three largest media corporations in the world:  The Walt Disney Co. ($42 billion), News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch's company, $34 billion), and Time Warner ($29 billion). 


Today, the impact of films like Caligari can be seen in the pseudo-tribal forms of sub-cultures, like the horror subculture. Caligari was an influence on films like Frankenstein (1931) which created the horror genre in the 1930s. In the late 1940s and 1950s, many aspects of expressionism were borrowed by the genre now known as "film noir" which like horror is still a highly influential genre today. Most of the best German directors had come to the U.S. after the Nazi regime was established in 1933, many of whom like Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg directed noir films, as did other influential directors like the Austrian director Billy Wilder. The consolidation of media empires and commodification of culture over the last hundred years leads to a diversified form of product that appears in many different forms, usually we call this 'merchandising':

The last level of meaning, I mentioned was the unintentional meaning revealed by the critic. This is the area where the critic or the one engaging the cultural product attempts to unearth the hidden meanings within the object, or as literature critic Leo Lowenthal, remarked, "mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse" (Jay 1996 p. 173). In other words, there is a "textual unconscious" that potentially can be revealed through the analysis of the critic. A text can be more than simply just written words, but almost any kind of language, and film has its own kind of language, but of course in a more literal sense almost all films are based on some sort of screenplay. 

The significance of the fairground and carnival are one of the major themes where critics dispute the intended meaning of the scene. Film critic Siegfried Kracauer believed that Janowitz and Mayer consciously intended to show the fairground as an area of freedom and happiness, that their intended meaning was to portray the fairground as a contrast to the evilness of Caligari who is seen as foreign element invading the peaceful land. However, Kracauer  argues the latent (or hidden) meaning of the fairground represents chaos and anarchy. The desire to express freedom as the carnival is really the desire to go back to the pre-industrial, pre-modern past (most carnivals and festivals date back to medieval times). The circular movements of the merry-go-round and the organ grinder's arm as he plays his music box are supposed to symbolize chaos, also with the organ grinder you are reminded that someone is working even while others are at leisure in this utopia. Caligari anticipates Hitler. Not that Janowitz and Mayer even knew who Hitler was when they wrote this script, but Kracauer believes that the combination of con-man and psychiatrist is a good representation of the kind of leader Hitler was. Kracuaer's analysis is that the film reveals the nihilistic core of German life in the 1920s and 1930s: a choice between tyranny on the one hand and chaos on the other.

The so-called revolutionary nature of "expressionism" is also criticized by Kracauer–and the Dadaists. Expressionism is a turn away from the external world and instead depicts the external world as expressions of internal states, or to "make the contents of the soul objective." However it is precisely this innwardness that Kracauer and others would criticize. The inwardness of expressionists similar perhaps to Siddhartha's philosophy of detachment, critics argue, reveals a withdrawal and a distancing from the social world and a retreat into the self.

                                            Rolf Nesch, Elbe Bridge I, (1932)
Expressionism as a movement  in films like Dr. Caligari are important in that it marks almost the exact point in which traditional forms of culture like painting became obsolete by mass culture, and in a secondary sense you can actually see the visual styles of expressionism integrated in the films, summed up by one of the film designers who declared that "films must be drawings brought to life." The use of shadows and light for dramatic effect also became one of the main visual styles of expressionism along with strange distorted shapes.

Here is the film itself. If you want to make the screen bigger, click the lower right corner. After watching the film, please read the second part of the lecture which is also relevant for the next couple of lectures which will be shorter.

Assignment Due 2/28 Choose a scene from the film and describe the scene. Then write your interpretation of the scene and the meaning of it. After that write why you chose this scene and how it relates to the class.

Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, Routledge, 2001
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Continuum, 1972
Thomas Elsaessar, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary, Routledge, 2000 
Alvin W. Gouldner, The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology, Oxford University Press, 1976
Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, University of California Press, 1996
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton University Press, 2004
Dietrich Scheunemann, Expressionist Film: New Perspectives, Camden House, 2003


  1. I find it so interesting to learn the development film making to Hollywood and the emergence of huge film producers like Warner Bros, Colombia etc
    also the cultural aspect of history that some of these films portrayed.

    1. I also find it very interesting that the major film studios developed out of ordinary Filmmakers ,wanting to avoid the fees Edison impose on them, fleeing New Jersey to a undeveloped Hollywood to creAte the now known mega film empire. Never question the root of its existence before but grateful for the knowledge. I cannot believe that New Jersey was the root of the film industry from the beginning. Wow!

  2. Undoubtedly one of the most exciting and inspired horror movies ever made. The story is a classic sampling of expressionist paranoia about a hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to do his murders, full of the gloom and fear that prevailed in Germany as it emerged from WWI.

  3. The film is an interesting art that had being created to show different illustration and emotion. This emotion are very important because is transmitting a message to the person who is watching the film. The way the author shows how the characters feel on the inside and show it on they outside. I believe is a great creativity.

  4. Started out perplexed about this film but then a sense of understanding came over me. Yes the film exposed the reality of the progression of expressionism as an art form not only to be thought provoking on canvas, but in film format too. The take away too was how fragile the human mind was and is capable of being.

  5. The movie is kind of scary and jerky at the same time. It shows the expressionist movement in act and film. It portrays insanity, falsehood camouflage in hypnotism with the use of somnambulist. It exhibits creativity in film making creating something out of nothing but to send a message of emotions without words.

  6. I have to say Professor, you means of teaching Nihilism in Germany has been very engaging. I never thought I would learn some much from watching a black and white film from the early 1900's. Thank you.

  7. I cant say I enjoyed the movie to the fullest, but the movie was entertaining. The idea of silent movies never caught my attention, but I understand it and I can appreciate it.

  8. I really didn't understand the movie at first after reading it n watched it a couple of time I have a little better understanding but not much. This was kind of dufficult for me becsuse I really didn't get it.

  9. This project was great! Originally when I saw that this silent movie was 51 minutes, I was taken back. However, I really did enjoy it, it was like solving a crime trying to pull scenes that could relate to the concepts discussed in our lectures. My question was, how can I related Siddhartha, dadaism, nihilism to this movie? However, when taking into account the social context and the experiences of the Germanic writers and producer, I was able to extract parts of the movie which in my opinion where relatable to the ideologies expressed by the dadaist movement,( the control bureaucrats had over ordinary individuals as can be seen in the art work of George Grozse, ' The eclipse of the sun) I found that Caligari's control over Cesare projected the same message as the painting in caligari being the bureaucrat and cesare mindless individuals taking orders.

  10. The film is an interesting kind of arts expressed in a form that will take you back to the past. Many people complain about the violation of it. Those films show the horror of World War I and Germany expressionist movement. It is showing different illustration style and emotions, but I didn't understand the dance of “Madness” by Kinugasa Teinosuke.

    1. I thought we were writing about the other movie.

    2. I interpret "Madness" by Kingugasa Teinosuke as a physical representation of mental illness.

  11. The scene with the Somnambulist creeping up on the lady to be wed. Just after Dr. Caligaria decides to point out this lady to the Somnambulist, as she is looking for her father, he seems to think that Somnambulist will develop urges and impulses to desire her. Though the doctor was looking for his power through the help of the somnambulist to kill, he also wanted to prove that lack of desire of this man would adjust by the sight of a female. The idea of this scene was to show that you may live to comply through a condition of limitation, but desire is always going to take precedence and live in its moment.

    1. Due to your analysis I connected Dr. Caligaria and the Somnambulist relationship with the Nihilistic criticism of God and human relationship. God gives humans orders and duties that they must comply with. Just like the somnambulist our natural desires hinder our abilities to follow our leader.

    2. I agree with your explanation. I also think that Caligari knew the Somnambulist would desire the woman but believed his power over him would prevail and the Somnambulist would carry out his order because he needed Caligari in order to survive.


  12. As I watched the short film which depicted the story read from the lecture, I chose the scene when the Supposed doctor Caligari went mad because his subject of use had died. I chose this scene not only because it reminds me of the many dreams and philosophies that many human beings may have, be them normal or abnormal but, the fact that to everyone of them they are valid. In my saying this, is relative to this course in a way of what nihilism can represent along with the previous lectures. All people seek that something, be it God, idols or, self as that one true guide in life. This story to me, reminded me of the philosophers previously discussed in these lectures and the stories told by those who either were seeking truth, thought they knew the true path or, felt that nothing mattered but the present. Some as the supposed Caligari went mad in their quest in search of the truth and, some as the real Caligari in the story, were the real culprits behind others wanting to follow their paths or be like them. This is the reason why in today's world I use Isis as an example of those who are playing that game called follow the leader. Every philosopher believes their philosophy is the the truth while everyone has lived a story. Not in response to anyone just my thoughts.

    1. Every Philosopher believes their philosophy is the truth as every individual follows one philosophy or another. We all believe in or follow something to one degree or another. Is this a matter of who is right or wrong,is it a matter of good or bad, is it a matter of opinion, is it a matter of survival, and which ever it is a matter of, who determines, who decides? This is what makes the world go round. While there will always be someone unsatisfied with the circle of life, will the entire universe ever be on the same page?

  13. Silent movies have never been my favorite however I can appreciate what it has portrayed. The silent movie was based emotions. It felt scary but it was also unique in its own way. The cover-up of the actors made it seem so realistic and intense. This film relates to the class because it shows the expressionist movement in Germany.

    1. Yes, this movie clearly portrayed many emotions. The expressionism in this film was moving. As I watched it I was pulled in by how dramatically the characters expressed what they felt and how they displayed every action of each character upon the other and how it affected them.

  14. The movie was confusing at first but aftert I reading it makes more sense

  15. The scene where Somnambulist under the control of Caligari going into the bedroom of the daughter in an attempt to kill her but then pauses as he falls under self control to his attraction. Instead of him stabbing her with the knife, he reaches down with his hand to touch her face in an affectionate and admiring way. The woman panics in fear and rage trying to fight him away and off her. Still under control of his own desire he flees with her from the room. The woman is scared but along the run with her in Somnambulist arms, while trying to get away from the chase of several men trying to rescue her, Somnambulan falls weak and die due to the lack of energy and nutrients required to survive because during the scene when the authorities came to Caligari's to investigate the murders his feeding was cut short by the interruption. Later the woman reveals it was Cesare. Francis is astonished and in disbelief of this news because he is under the illusion that Cesare was in his coffin the entire time he kept watch over Caligari's place and that the man the police had in custody was the murderer. The coffin is then searched only to find that who Francis thought was Cesare was in fact a mannequin. You see power, gloom, gory, fear, and deception in this film which relates to Nihilistic themes. Expressionism in this film reveals the internal emotions of the characters through motions and facial expressions of the actors, the gloom through the lighting and dark colors and clothing, gory through the sneaking, creeping, make up and killing motion, and suspense, and deception through non actual events being portrayed as actual.