In 1918, a humiliated and haggard war-torn Germany mounted a campaign to reclaim its stake as an international powerhouse. Artists took on the challenge of winning over a now very critical and disapproving rest of the world. From this deficit the German Expressionist movement was born. Artists reincarnated the ideology of Die Brücke which had previously manifested in 1905 in Dresden. Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’) was the theory of using high contrast and abstracted forms to strip away the constraints of modern urban life to access the raw expressions of the human condition. In effect, this art movement attempted to illustrate the most basic human emotions to establish a renewed sense of universality.
Achieving this vision was a tall order for filmmakers due to the studios’ lack of government funding, a typical side effect of a wartime economy. Consequently, Germany was now a bankrupt and depleted world power.
Due to the war, German filmmakers were unaware of any advances in filmmaking from 1914 onward. The landmark BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), which introduced several revolutionary film techniques, was unseen by the prominent German filmmakers. German filmmakers thus forged their own film movement. Grown from the seeds of the German Expressionist art movement, filmmakers attempted to translate what had been achieved on canvas, paper, and woodblock into a moving image.
With every obstacle stacked against them, Robert Wiene was the first out of the gate with THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919). The art direction team of Herman Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Rehrig transformed modest humble paper cutouts into a personified landscape of cynicism.
The studio’s supply of electricity was heavily restricted, prompting the artists to create their own light and shadow through paint, effectively heightening the sense of contrast. Each frame of this film stands on its own as a work of German Expressionist art, but together forms a cohesive-slanted spectrum of human emotion previously untapped in art. Darkness seeps in to meet the unsuspecting viewer, prompting them to address their own condition and relate it back to the picture.
Le Corbusier, a modern architect, believed geometric forms are the most basically understood by humans and thus can be used to create a feeling of universality. By abstracting basic geometric forms in the set design, paired with the use of the canted angle, Robert Wiene establishes a baseline of human emotion. By a further distortion of form, the film taps into more complex human emotion that can still be universally understood.
The influence of this film is unparalleled, especially for future filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock who harnessed the German Expressionist use of light and shadow for his suspense films. I myself saw one image from this film and was prompted to create similar architecture. I grappled with recreating my grandparents’ houses in sculpture. With limited resources and time, however, I had no means of constructing elaborate sets from wood. Upon reading how the art direction team in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI used paper cutouts to achieve these magnificent forms, I had the conviction to go after my own mad vision by means of cardboard and cheap paint. I learned the complexity and richness of emotion could be conveyed with even the meekest of materials, through the imaginative and relentless mind of the artist.