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The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, a German silent film created in 1920, is known as the ‘first true horror film’. Directed by Robert Weine and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is also considered to be the foremost example of German Expressionist cinema.

German Expressionism refers to movements spanning numerous creative disciplines – including architecture, dance and painting – that started in Germany before the outbreak of World War One. So influential was German Expressionism that it inspired the spread of similar Expressionist movements throughout north and central Europe. Artists you will perhaps be familiar with who epitomise the angst-laden Expressionist sentiment include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele. Although Vincent van Gogh died before the start of Expressionism, he is considered influential to many of its key figures.

For your first unit 10 assignment I would like you to watch The Cabinet of Dr Caligari on YouTube. It’s a short film, just over one-hour long, but there is much to take in. Having watched the film, I would like you to consider the questions under the YouTube link on this page, in readiness for a class discussion about the film at the beginning of next week’s session.

Although you will not be writing your submission essays about The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, I have chosen it as an example that will hopefully get you thinking in ways that will ready you for the kind of visual analysis that will be expected as part of the unit assessment.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is a fantastic work. Not only is the film visually and metaphorically rich; it references numerous societal and political changes that were occuring in Germany at the time it was made, and it shows superbly how a visual system can be carried through from one artistic discipline to another.

Questions about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

  • What are the film’s key themes?
  • What techniques have the creators used to make the film’s visual style echo or differ from those of German Expressionist paintings?
  • What allegories do you draw from the plot?
  • How does the film refer to the social and/or political climate in Germany in 1920?
  • What do you consider to be the most arresting, or pivotal, element of the film?
  • Do you like/dislike the film and why?

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