Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari — “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” — is a silent 1920 German Gothic movie that set the new standard for terror in a darkened theatre, and that movie also epitomizes the artistic ideal of “Expressionism” that took populist hold in Germany after World War I.
We can only understand Expressionism when placed in context against Naturalism and Realism.
Expressionism is all about crashing reality. Expressionism is angles, sharp edges and dramatic comparisons between what is real and what is not. Expressionism devolves the world and upsets the norm. Expressionism is a smash in the face while Naturalism is a pat on the back.
Take a look at these images from the Caligari movie. You immediately begin to question reality. You meet a murdering somnambulist who sleeps upright during the day in a cabinet. The world is not as it seems or as we wish it to be.
Walking the city streets is a nightmare.
The walls of the buildings cave in on you with sharp edges and the streets are drawn in black lines and shadows. Your perspective is askew. Are you standing or falling?
Is this a dungeon or a mountaintop?
Are those angular shards in the background flashes of lightning or are they the rays of a dawning sun?
What sort of anchor is chained to his leg?
You can view the entire Caligari movie online — beware that this YouTube version is electronically sped up to cut 20 minutes from its length for effective online streaming:
Expressionism has a long life beyond Caligari.
Since 1920, the Expressionist movement has carried on in paintings, furniture, sculpture and even the music of today: If sharp angles and contrasting black and white are used — Expressionism is the inspiration.
The most recent example of German Expressionism in modern life is Lady Gaga’s latest video, “Alejandro.” Let’s take a look at a few stills from her video for analysis.
We start with the beginning suggestive, semiotic, images. Light and shadow. Angles. The unknown menace awaits.
In the very next shot, we get to see more of the menace, but the shape of the environment is purposefully confusing.
Are we inside or outside? A we floating uphill or are they rolling down on us? Where is the horizon? Is that a blossoming sun above us or an explosion in the night sky?
Are we in Germany or in a nightmare?
Are we puppets in a fantasy or active participants in a disgruntled illusion?
Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?
Now we’re dancing! In our underwear! With disembodied dudes!
Lady Gaga isn’t wearing sunglasses that cover her eyes! Why? Because reality is upside down and what once was, no longer is!
Don’t forget to hold the barrels of your machine gun bra as a salute to the New Militia Era!
As the end begins — is Lady Gaga burning for her unabashed sins — or is the film itself just melting from the heat of a disembodied projector lamp?
Here’s the full Alejandro video for your immediate consumption:
I loved the song “Alejandro” — before I watched this video — because my imagination made it a more romantic song than the video now embodies. Now the song is just unfortunately gross and needlessly perverse, and even just listening to it is something I will never do again.
Expressionism doesn’t always ruin the romantic — but Expressionism has no room to abide or support the notion of warmth — because Expressionism is about death and suffering and it is never about love or understanding.
Expressionism is necessarily cold and militaristic and it warns us against the spiny horrors of war and how those damning experiences can mechanize the human emotion of an entire nation into reflexive, dictatorial, autoimmune responses. We wish to feel in real time, but to feel is to know death. Only in an altered reality may we begin to live on with the drudgery of our lives.
The rise of Nazi Germany in 1933 traces its incandescent roots back to the Expressionistic movement of the 1920’s: Individualism is repressed in favor of group thought and blind obedience to a transcendent, punishing, authority.
We are bred to follow, not lead, and the risk we take in wondering for ourselves — while the world around us spins out of control — is a sharp and angular unreality that poses risks to the psychic self and provides pointed spikes and razor edges lying in wait to harm the body politic.