Revolutionary Expressionism

* A writing assignment from the MFA program at the National University.

German Expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, can be seen as anti-reality cinema. Expressionist art rose to prominence in post World War 1 Germany, a time when reality itself was bleak. Did the harshness of a world ravaged by war push audiences and artists towards these forms of expression as a form of resistance to the turmoil of the world around them?

Expressionism is often confused with surrealism. Although they are similar there is an important distinction between the two. Surrealism is the visual representation of the artist’s dreamlike alternate reality and expressionism is the visual representation of the artist’s feelings about reality. Neither are an accurate representation of reality, they are more abstract. Expressionism speaks to our inner feelings, a more emotional experience. On the other hand, surrealism is a more cerebral experience. Although neither have endured as a film genre, they heavily inspired modern horror and noir filmmaking.


Comparing Van Gogh’s Starry Night to The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali one can get a good idea of the differences between the two major artistic movements born in post WW1 Europe. Europe was a scary place back then, these art forms offered people escapism. A brief reprieve from from their crumbled economies and infrastructures, a

temporary escape from a real world devastated by a world at war. Starry Night shows us the real world, distorted. Everything is familiar but out of whack. A crazy, mixed up mad mad world that is full of beauty for anyone who could see and appreciate what was beyond their immediate purview. The Persistence of Memory shows us a wasteland where time is liquid. Without a society the social construct of time seems

irrelevant, it melts away. All is forgotten in the vast emptiness of a mind out of time. One of the most famous pieces of expressionist art is from the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. In Munch’s The Scream a lone screaming figure stands among an otherwise pleasant seaside landscape. The landscape is in a state of disarray, as is the visual representation fo the screamer. Mind, body and soul are screaming out amid a confusing but familiar world.

In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the audience is introduced to the frail old doctor in a flashback as the main character, Mr. Franzies, retells the story of a troubling experience he and his fiancé recently endured. Whatever it was clearly left her in a perpetually delirious haze. As he retells his story the audience leaves the spooky unknown forest of present day for the dreamlike world of the past. The physical surroundings of the story in the past seem bigger, slightly misshapen and larger than life. Darkened corners and large shadows add to the mystery. The eerie music played throughout gives a sense of wonder with an underlying sense of unease and pending doom. The audience starts the story by being told it will end badly, the fiancé may never be the same.


The town clerk is in a vile temper, he shouts at the old frail doctor who dutifully waits likes he’s unkindly told. This becomes a theme throughout the film. The people in positions of power sit in their sometimes literal lofty seats of power and look down on the common man. It seems the old doctor has come to town to entertain them with the spectacle of the somnambulist (a sleepwalker). At the town’s fair Doctor Caligari stands on his soapbox stage and introduces the people to the hulking mysteriously darkened figure, Cesare the Somnambulist. An actual sleeping giant, he spent his whole lifetime asleep. Symbolically, the sleeping giant represents the people, living under tyrannical rule.

In the beginning of act two the audience is told the unruly town clerk had been murdered, stabbed with a strange and unknown instrument. Metaphorically, the only way to kill a tyrant is to bleed them out. Upon command from his master, Dr. Caligary, Cesare the Somnambulist awakes and entertains stunned fairgoers by obeying the doctor’s every command. Mr. Franzies is among the stunned onlookers as the doctor wields his power and commands the sleeping giant to obey his every whim.

Just before nightfall we meet Mr. Franzies’ fiancé and his best friend Alan, who also loves her. Act two ends with Alan’s murder, a shadowy figure comes into his home at night and stabs him, as prophesied by the somnambulist. Later a villager is caught murdering an old woman but he claims to have had nothing to do with the other two murders. He claims to have copied the motives of the other two murders to cast suspicions. The towns people of course celebrate the fake news that the murderer has been caught and go back to life as usual.

When the innocent and lovely young lady is lured in to see Cesare the Somnambulist he awakens. That night the somnambulist wakes, armed with a knife he breaks into the virginal lovely lady’s white room. She is the only character who dresses in white and the only character whose living space is white as well. All the other locations are varying shades of gray. The sleeping giant hesitates, Cesare doesn’t stab her as he clearly intended. Instead he takes her away. The town’s people give chase, they fight back and the giant flees. We know see why the future Mrs. Franzie’s loses her proverbial marbles.

A double cross and an imposter distract the towns people before the somnambulist meets his Frankenstein like demise. Caligary being a Dr. Frankenstein like character, the powerful man loses control of the monster of his own creation. An easily avoidable man made problem wreaks havoc on these innocent townspeople, much like the war that ravaged their lands. When Mr. Franzies turns for help, the one man he’s told can help the people is the very man who is causing them harm, Caligari. They learn that Caligari and his somnambulist have already ravaged Northern Italy. Caligari completely subjugated the powerful giant, forcing him to do the dirty work. The metaphor runs deep.

The soldier is not the one responsible for war, but it is the soldier who does the dirty work. In the end, it is also the soldier who suffers; captured or killed in action. Obeying commands made the somnambulist appear to be the villain when the real villain was his rich and powerful overlord. The horrors of war, the tragedies of our time, are suffered by the masses while the rich and powerful get away with everything. Until, of course, the people rise up, seek the truth and revolt against them.

Power to the people! Viva la revolución!