German Expressionism: Cinema or Theatre?

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene

Expressionism was a significant artistic movement that was present in cinema influenced by other artistic forms. “Expressionism as a legitimate and valuable aesthetic manifestation of German culture.” (Fulda & Soika, 2012, p.XI) have crucial characteristics which can be best described in the film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene, a German expressionist cinematographer.

This essay will first establish the definition of Expressionism where, “It doesn’t matter to it whether or not a prison cell looks how one normally looks. It utilizes lines, abbreviations, and escalations in order to work out the sinister, agonizing feeling of a prison compositionally.”(Kurtz, 2016, p.56) This evidence suggests that the essence is to express an inner emotion rather than illustrate reality.

The stage, “which could identify any play or production that departed from realism and showed life in a highly personal, idiosyncratic manner, the form of the play ‘expressing’ its content, and it was particularly applicable to the perfervid movement which gripped the German theatre in the 1910s and early 1920s.” (Styan, 1981, p.2) There are many similarities between Dr Caligari (1920) and theatre productions just like the set design, lighting techniques and structure.

First of all, the set design is “dreamlike and nightmarish” (1981, p.4), where the unusual shapes and lines makes the film abstract. The reason why they used painted backgrounds is because the “film was also inspired by a painter.” (2016, p.54) They used Chiaroscuro lighting to contrast the harsh shadows and the big light areas to capture the “rigorous anti-realism”. (1981, p.1) Spot light lighting technique has been invented, this highlights the actors face to make the audience focus on their mimicry. Although, the audience tends to see everything on set, there is an anticipation that something uncanny encircles the place.   

Second of all, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) was one of the first ever movies that introduced a ‘Plot Twist’ which means a radical change in direction was taken away from the expected ending. In this case, that’s a crucial strategy that well supports Expressionism and its anti-realism. The last 20 minutes of the film, the asylum appears which shows ambivalence in the story and in the main character, Dr Caligari as well. “The irony extends to the figure of Caligari himself, both persecuted outsider and figure of control.” (Coates, 1991, p.36) At this point, the audience can’t decide whether it was real or it all happened in his head.

To conclude, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari “had instigated a migration of personnel, horrific ideas and aesthetics across the Atlantic from the 1920s onwards.” (Dyson, 2011, p.109) There are many attributes in the film that are coming from other artistic forms and influencing contemporary genres. The German expressionist cinema was an experimental style that revolutionized the history of filmmaking by exploring theatrical aspects.


~ Coates, Paul, (1991) The gorgon’s gaze : German cinema, expressionism, and the image of horror. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

~  Dyson, E. (2011). Horror. In L. Geraghty (Ed.), Directory of World Cinema: American Hollywood (pp. 108-110). Bristol: Intellect.

~ Fulda, B. & Soika, A. (2012). Preface. Max Pechstein: The Rise and Fall of Expressionism, 11, VIII-XVI.

~ Kurtz, R. (2016). Expressionism and Film. United Kingdom: John Libbey Publishing Ltd.

~ Styan, J L. (1981) “Expressionism and Epic Theatre” Modern Drama in Theory and Practice: Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

~ Wiene, R. (1920). Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari [Film]. Germany: Decla-Bioscop

My favourite student blog:

Out of all the student blogs, 924994 ( has the most engaging design and coherent arguments. The idea of using the flags to highlight each nation’s section is clearly shows that the blog is well focused on visuals. There are a good range of clips and pictures supporting the topics. The overall arguments are clear and flow together with the key points. After each and every section there are correct bibliographies in APA 6 format. It demonstrates the deep research that considers every aspects of each topic. The knowledge of the films have been impressively placed into historical context with excellent academic tone and grammar. All together this blog has been shown a mature understanding of European Cinema in an aesthetically pleasing setting.

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