Challenging our realities

The 1920′ horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deliberately utilizes contorted dimensions, extreme shadows, and abstract structures to portray the unconventional and unrealistic nature of German Expressionism. This film creates a parallel between the absurd, horrific plot with the twisted visual style on screen. The formalistic aesthetic designs mirror the post-war chaos and confusion in Germany- illustrating this darkness and terror in a unique visual expression.


Instead of showing a simple and traditional reality for its viewers, the film creates a new perceived reality through its perplexing projections. At first, the scenes seem uncomfortable and hard to follow because our instincts tell us these visuals are unrealistic. For example, this screenshot shows an image of the fair with contorted buildings in the background. These buildings and ridges look as though they could not structurally stand on their own. The jagged lines, tilting structures and unsettling dimensions not only create visual tension, but tension within the plot as well. The contrasting angles in this shot project on off-putting tone and sense of anxiety that reflect the terror of the storyline.



An article I found interesting can be found here: Article

It reads “(the film) uses elements… (that) create an unnatural world where reality becomes a warped excursion through shadows and abstract designs. This disorienting effect is achieved through the remarkable art direction …and includes twisted streets, over-hanging buildings, crazily squeezed rooms and contorted scenery.” These visual elements challenge our mind to imagine a different type of “unnatural” world where these bizarre actions take place.

Also, With few words throughout the entire movie, it is not the script explaining the plot, but the metaphors on screen. This simplicity and lack of words force viewers to read between the lines and interpret the scenes for ourselves from the unsettling images. To really experience and understand the action of the film, viewers must allow these scenes tell their story and create a new sense of reality.

For most horror films of our time, the terror aspect comes from the gore and vulgarity of its images. In contrast, this film derives its terror aspect from stripping our mind of what we believe is realistic and correct in a visual. The shots trigger uncertainty for the audience and makes them question what is real and what is fake. In post-war Germany, I assume most people did know how to interpret what was going around them- without leadership, direction, or what they felt was real versus what the government wanted them to believe.

Although hard to comprehend at certain points, the harsh and eerie visuals of the film challenge the perceptions of the characters along with our own perceptions of reality. 

In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, he explores the idea of human perception and the self-exclaimed truths that derive from it. In the story, bound prisoners are stuck in a cave and have no knowledge of the real world except the shadows that appear on the walls in front of them. They have never seen anything besides these shadows.  This is their reality. Their visual perception is sheltered by their physical constraints, but they are also prisoners of their own thoughts.  I believe this relates to the film because our unique (and sometimes insane) minds interpret our perceptions and create our own realities. Both these works explore people’s perceptions of the environment around them and how these interpretations shape a sense of truth. 

-Sarah Holt

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2 Responses to Challenging our realities

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I really like how you looked in-depth at the visual technique with the absurd angles and lighting and connected it back to German Expressionism. It is also unique how you included an article that complemented your review, and contrasted modern horror (graphic, violent) with the film’s more psychologically twisted focus.

    -Meg Schmit

  2. marymdalton says:

    Good analysis!

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