The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” are intrinsically linked—the film is a near perfect exemplary of Plato’s theory on reality, which is so integral to film production and viewing.
In “Allegory of the Cave,” the “prisoners” of the dark cave are chained so that the only reality they perceive is shadows cast on the blank wall before them. These “prisoners” can be likened to film-goers who sit in a dark theater, watching the projection of images that are perceived as the reality of the film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari takes Plato’s Allegory and incorporates it into one of the earliest horror films and clear example of German Expressionism.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has an extremely abstract style. The music is eerie and jolting to parallel the dreadful narrative; the text stills are backed with sharply cut, unnatural shapes; and the use of masking and jarring colored film is unnerving. The film definitely bends in the most extreme formalistic direction in terms of its visual style and editing techniques.
Here you can see the emphasis on extreme lighting and constructed set angles that characterize the formalistic aesthetic.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also employs the use of an unreliable narrator, the man who prefaces the “dreadful” story. We can only see most of the gruesome acts through projected shadows on the walls, like in the still below, and in the final scenes, the narrator himself is declared insane and institutionalized.
This clever use of shadows echoes back to Plato’s Allegory where the “prisoners” can only gauge reality from what they can see on the wall before them; they are, like us, unaware of the true perpetrators.
This particular film, and it’s direct link to Plato’s Allegory, acts as a metaphor for post-war Germany and its feelings of chaos, confusion, and fear. In its own way, the people of an Expressionist Germany felt that they were indeed prisoners in the dark, trying to differentiate what lie before them as reality or disillusionment.