Distorted scenes and menacing shadows create a world overcome by madness

The Scream by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard MunchWhat is Expressionist Art?:

Expressionist art is a distorted and intense psychological style of art originating in the early 1900’s. It’s purpose is to bring out a feeling or emotion in the viewer by depicting the world the way it feels as opposed to the way it looks. The intention is to invoke a powerful reaction of unease or imbalance. To achieve this sense of imbalance, nothing is square or straight in Expressionist art. Colours are garish and weird and buildings or trees loom and twist in a grotesque manner, giving a distorted vision of a dream or nightmare world.

One of the best examples of Expressionist art is “The Scream” by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch. In the painting, the character is in a severe emotional state, overcome by the madness of his surroundings. The blood red sky and swirling, moving landscape are intended to create a sense of imbalance and distress.

Expressionist Art in Horror Films:

In German Expressionist horror films of the 1920s, the intent was the same–to show a visual narrative of a world in disorder through the use of distorted scenes, menacing shadows and unsettling music score. Many of the finest Expressionist films were made in Germany in the early 1900’s. Films, such as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), depicted worlds much like Expressionist paintings-with unreal nightmare scenes and characters in severe emotional states, overcome by the madness of their surroundings.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

There are a few gorgeous examples of Expressionist films such as Nosferatu and Vampyre, but because it is the finest example of German Expressionist films and an amazing example of superb set design and great acting  I will concentrate on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for this blog.

Set Design:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about a mad hypnotist (Dr. Caligari), who uses a Somnambulist (Cesare), to tell the future in a carnival side-show. However, he is also using Cesare to commit a series of murders, causing terror in the town. The film was Directed by Robert Wiene in 1919. The script was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and was inspired by their experiences of  the chaos of World War 1. Dr. Caligari represents brutal authority, and Cesare represents the soldiers who were conditioned, by a cruel regime, to kill. Wiene worked with Set Designers Herman Warm and Walter Reiman to create his nightmarish world. Warm and Reiman, who were also painters, painted twisted streets with oblique angles and jagged edges directly onto canvas. With this simple, but very effective technique, they created a fantastic, slanted and curved atmosphere of a chaotic world. Hermann Warm, who also worked on Vampyr with Director Carl Dreyer, was instrumental in changing traditional concepts of set design by using painted backdrops in favour of three-dimensional constructions. These stunning sets made Caligari the stunning classic film that is is today.


Lighting Techniques and the Use of Shadows:
Expressionist films are known for their technique of using shadows. These shadows were created through innovative lighting effects pioneered by theatre Director Max Reinhardt. Many of the people who worked on the film would have been involved with the theatre of Max Reinhardt, a groundbreaking stage Director. In Dr. Caligari, lighting effects were used in combination with the set design to cast creepy shadows from the angled buildings to enhance the feeling of menace and threat. These shadows were also used to great effect when Cesare committed his murders. When Cesare kills a person in the movie, we see his shadow, not him – until the final murder of Jane, where we actually see how brutal and terrifying Cesare can be.

The Actors:
Dr Caligari was played by Werner Kraus, and the somnambulist (Cesare) was played by Conrad Veidt, who were both well known actors of the time. Werner Kraus is amazing to watch as Caligari. He was known for playing sinister characters and he became a worldwide sensation for his portrayal of Caligari, which, apparently (according to Wikipedia) earned him the title of “the man with a thousand faces”.

Conrad Veidt was a suave and handsome actor, and his angular features perfectly suited the aesthetic of Cesare. In the United States the first makeup designed expressly for motion pictures was created in 1910 by Max Factor, who was a pioneer in developing a lighter makeup specifically for motion picture actors. However, as this picture was made in Germany it is likely the heavy makeup for Cesare was theatre greasepaint. In those days the acting world was very small, and many of these actors from the theatre would have earned to do their own makeup. Theatre make-up was applied heavily, and Cesare’s heavy use of black under the eyes and the stark white face would have been greasepaint – an oily grease mixed with a colour –  used by actors of the stage and screen.


Title Design:
The incredible effects in this movie of the 1920’s is incredible for it’s time, and still stands up to any visual effects of today. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari delivers on it’s vision of madness from the outset with the title design. At that time, title design was usually a painted static image that was done in the studio–unlike today where Title Design is an art form in itself, and is usually done by a visual effects company. For the most part, in the time of silent pictures, the title design was simply used to introduce the characters and provide a narrative. But in Dr. Caligari, Warm and Reiman created an art from of the titles by painting the titles in the same fractured angled background as the sets. Thus, the oblique angles and jagged shapes in the title design enhanced the narrative of this fractured world.

The attack on Jane:
I cannot end without mentioning the attack on Jane by Cesare. As Cesare, Conrad Veidt plays his stilted role of the Somnambulist very well, because, lets face it, he doesn’t have to do much but move his eyes for most of the film………until the scene where he attacks Jane in her bedroom. This scene is truly terrifying. The vicious struggle of Jane combined with the evil of Cesare is a horrifying scene and I defy any self confessed horror fan to say that it doesn’t stand up to any extremely uncomfortable and frightening horror scene of today. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is really a beautiful film to watch, but at the end of the day this is a horror film and horror is supposed to be horrific. The premise is a world of brutality, and this scene delivers.




1873 – Robert Wiene (Director) – Born, Wroclaw, Poland
1884 – Werner Kraus  (Actor) – Born, Bavaria, Germany
1887Walter Reiman (Art Director/Painter) – Born, Berlin, Germany
1889Herman Warm (Art Director/Painter) – Born, Berlin, Germany
1893 – Conrad Veidt (Actor) – Born, Berlin, Germany
1920 – THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI film released
1936 – Walter Reiman – Died, Bad Godesberg, Germany
1938 – Robert Wiene – Died, Paris, France
1943 – Conrad Veidt – Died, Hollywood, California
1959 – Werner Kraus – Died, Vienna, Austria
1976 – Herman Warm – Died, Berlin, Germany


Cliffsnotes: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/d/dracula/critical-essays/the-american-horror-film-and-the-influence-of-german-expressionism
Artnet: https://news.artnet.com/market/art-house-an-introduction-to-german-expressionist-films-32845
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cabinet_of_Dr._Caligari
MIT: http://www.mit.edu/course/21/21f.055/www/caligarireviews.html
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yX0VITK6Aw




Share This