The Allegory of Dr. Caligari – FitzGerald

After screening Robert Wiene’s 1920 thriller, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and reading Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave, it is fascinatingly clear how German Expressionism, like all film styles, relies on the use of visual dynamics, metaphors and symbolic imagery as the cornerstone for constructing “reality” for viewers. While “reality” itself is, per Plato, a distant truth—made somewhat visible to us through “projections, shadows, or […] artifacts”—I do not accept that we are prisoners to such ‘illusions,’ nor do I think them to be non-substantive in revealing larger truths.

This is made most clear in the scenes of Dr. Caligari when murderous crimes are committed. None of the knife stabbings are explicitly captured. Rather, they rely on the use of shadows and action initiation/outcome (omitting the climax action) to convey the event. This is similar to the murder scene in Psycho, also featuring a knife, which relies on montage to convey the act.

knife-shadow

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Image from source.

While many modern films are now saturated with explicit images (particularly those within the horror genre), I think the lack of such imagery in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari captures the essence of how the intended truths of all films rely on metaphors, illusions, symbolic imagery, and editing—independent of aesthetic tradition (realism, formalism, classicism). Although German Expressionism is on the formalistic end of the spectrum, meaning the heightened aesthetic choices intrinsically distance viewers from reality, I think it is true that even the most realistic films are also guilty of distorting reality on some level. As we discussed in Film Media & Aesthetics, no film is ideologically neutral. Choices are always being made, thus all movies present images that are distorted depictions of reality (though some, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, may be more obvious than others). The crooked door frames and windows (pictured below) are a good example of formalistic choices made, reminding viewers that the narrative takes place in a world somewhat dissimilar, but not entirely different, from our own.

crooked-windows

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Image from source.

My point in addressing images and metaphor in relation to reality is to highlight how the illusions of film, like the illusions in The Allegory of the Cave, can actually bring us closer to reality if, according to Plato’s presumption, reality is forever ambiguous to us (during our mortal lives, anyway). The “prisoners,” until offered the chance to exit the cave, have no way of attempting to understand reality beyond the images and shadows on the cave walls. If we are like the prisoners, then why is it unreasonable to use moving pictures, like the shadows on the walls, in attempt to understand our larger world? It isn’t. While it may be true that movies might never reveal reality directly to us, they do provoke curiosity, creativity, and new ways of looking at life—none of which are bad things. The difference between the cave prisoners and us as prisoners—the reason why I see movies as valuable rather than a form of trickery—is that we as viewers understand and accept that movies are not reality. We don’t know what reality is, per say, but we do acknowledge that movies (for the most part) are not it. This ability to distance ourselves from that which is presented in films does not make us “prisoners” to its illusions, but rather enables us to ponder larger truths—through new creative lenses—making film more of an enlightening experience than a limiting one.

-Kelly FitzGerald

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4 Responses to The Allegory of Dr. Caligari – FitzGerald

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I loved this analysis of the film. You really examined the visual and contextual components in-depth and linked German Expressionism, Allegory of the Cave, and the film together. You especially demonstrated knowledge on Plato’s theory and how it relates to film. Good job!

    -Meg Schmit

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I think you did a great job at sharing your opinion and thoughts of the film, and backing up these points with meaningful details. The connection between this film and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” was very strong, and it really made me think about how it really may be more important to interpret movies not as reality, but a more interesting way to think about what really is reality.

    Catherine Maier

  3. mediaphiles says:

    I thought your analysis of the film and the reading were really well done. I thought the comparison with Psycho was a really great point and something I also noticed when I watched the film. I thought your conclusion was excellent and really made me think a lot about film as a whole.

    -Walker Rise

  4. marymdalton says:

    I agree with Cathy, Megan, and Walker. The analysis is good — well-reasoned and convincing — and the use of the screen captures is effective!

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