Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

I wanted to look at some more extreme examples of stylised set design. Film-makers seemed to be a lot more happy with experimenting during the silent film era. Cinema was a new medium, a new way to say something and a new way to play with ideas. German Expressionism was hugely influencial in the look of these early films. A particularly good example is Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari directed by Robert Wiene from the screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. This is one of the most influential of German Expressionist films, which used abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats. The sets were actually made from paper and shadows were painted onto the walls.

The art director for Dr. Caligari was Hermann Warm, who trained in stage design in Berlin and Duesseldorf and has over 70 titles to his name.

In his essay The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary, Anthony Vidler explained the power of production design in film and that the sets were ‘No longer an inert background, architecture now participated in the very emotions of film. The surroundings no longer surrounded, but entered the experience as presence’.

Anthony Vidler, The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary, Neumann, D 1996. Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner (Architecture and Design). Edition. Prestel Pub.

Anthony Vidler then went on to mention the essay by Herman G. Scheffauer who describes ‘The frown of a tower, the scowl of a sinister alley, the pride and serenity of a white peak, the hypnotic draught of a straight road vanishing to a point – these exert their influences and express their natures; their essences flow over the scene and blend with the action.’

Herman G. Scheffauer, “The Viviferying of Space” (1920), in Lewis Jacobs, ed., Introduction to the Art of the Movies (New York: Noonday Press, 1960), pp. 76-85. The essay appeared in Scheffauer’s collection of essays, The New Vision in the German Arts (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1924).

I would love to replicate some of the techniques used in Dr. Caligari in my future projects on testing the effect of production design on a scene.  Just before the release of the film in Germany, posters were put up in Berlin with the tagline “Du mußt Caligari werden!” (“You have to become Caligari!”)  without the slightest hint that they were a promotion for the upcoming film. The poster below was produced afterwards.

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