Light and Shadow in German Expressionist Cinema: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Abílio Hernandez Cardoso

Modernist movements represented the fundamental contribution of art to the profound changes that were underway in modern industrial society. There was a conscious and radical rupture with previous aesthetic conventions: the constant experimentation and reflection underpinning the artistic practice of this period led artists to reject the principle that art was fundamentally a representation of the exterior world. Opting for fragmentation of the artistic discourse, and openly assuming the principle of space-time discontinuity, or exploring an unresolved tension between light and shadow, Expressionism and other modernist movements highlighted the liberating power of a reality generated by the imagination, emotions and memory.

Light and shadow are the essential principles of 1910s, 20s and early 1930s German expressionist cinema. Neither of these elements exists solely in its own right, separate from the other. On the contrary, the presence of both elements simultaneously manifests their mutual dependence. The image renders them perceptible and enables them to convey meaning to the beholder. The relationship that binds them together is therefore conflictual - a tension that never resolves itself and which underpins the structure of many of the films produced during this period. It is not, however, a dualism or a dialectic, as Gilles Deleuze points out (1), because these films exist beyond any organic unity or totality. On the contrary, there is an infinite opposition - in which light, in order to be seen, is absolutely dependent on the opaque darkness that opposes it, and which thereby renders it visible.

The definition of the image’s lines of force depends precisely on the relationship between these two elements. And all the movement of the constituent figures and objects is constructed and defined within these lines. The figures often appear frail, lonely, and almost always in a situation of flight, forcing them to travel through a space that is traced and dominated by light and darkness. As for the objects, it is not uncommon for them to gain an autonomous and threatening life of their own, to such an extent that they create the illusion that the walls, windows, doors and their shadows are the protagonists, pursuing the figures which run disorderly and desperately through the deserted streets and alleys. As Deleuze notes (2), the objects come to life at the very moment that the animated being seems to be about to die. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is one of the exemplary examples of this principle. The frightened figure of the lonely Hans Beckert (unforgettably portrayed by Peter Lorre) is pursued by the police officers of the stalwart inspector Lohmann, by the syndicated criminals of the sinister Schränker, and also by the houses, walls and the shadows that (dis)form the deserted streets and cul-de-sacs of a city that has united in the hunt for the child murderer.

The movement which is intensified by the light and shadows is not at all smooth or rectilinear. On the contrary, it is violent, abrupt, sometimes convulsive and seemingly chaotic. The light and shadows in which this movement occurs (apparently in search of an exit or a goal that is never found) organize the lines that define it, in accordance with a principle of permanent instability, in oblique and fleeting segments, along a path that is always on the fringes of the balance and stability that is normally fostered by horizontal and vertical lines. Gilles Deleuze (3) says that the spectator is confronted with a Gothic geometry, which constructs space, instead of describing it: a geometry that proceeds by extension and accumulation, in lines that extend beyond all measurements until the moment when their break points produce accumulations of light or shadow. The result is a deeply unstable, deformed space, because it is (re)created in each shot, a disturbing and problematic space, in which objects are distributed over distances that advance in an irrational manner, in which the figures are lost and which disorient the spectator due to the distorted perspectives and the abandonment of the principle of a single light source, which is the characteristic feature of the naturalistic model.

See the shot in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, by Robert Wiene (1919), in which the somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), kidnaps the young woman and carries her in his arms, over the roofs. The painted scene, with markedly distorted angles, and the shadows cast on it, momentarily create an illusion for the spectator that the characters must travel a long distance. However, it takes no more than five or six steps for Cesare to cross the entire space, in a scene that, like others in the film, is affirmed by the negation of the Renaissance perspective, dominant in Western art until the modernist period, through negation of its foundation, i.e. the illusion of three-dimensional space.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often cited, due to its unique forms and use of strange and distorted sets. But such forms and uses are inextricably linked to the way that light and shadows affect these sets. It is the light and shadows that distort and multiply the perspectives, accentuating the unusual angles, the inclined walls, the illusion of impossible spaces.

It is above all this tension that defines the story space of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a world of madness. When, towards the end of the film, Franzis, the narrator, follows Caligari and enters the asylum, Robert Wiene includes a shot of the courtyard with figures and objects located at various distances from the camera. In a realistic film, the perspective converges from the foreground to the background, i.e., the lines of the foreground converge towards the bottom of the frame, through the composition and distribution of the frame’s constituent elements. In Caligari, however, the perspective is reversed: Franzis is placed in the foreground, rather than in the background and yet it is he who occupies the convergent point of the perspective lines, rather than the most distant figure in the frame. The result is once again the creation of a profound and uncontrollable sense of instability and maladjustment, of a space in which reality and illusion intersect and are affected, without the possibility of benefiting from a metalanguage that stabilizes it and creates a sense of order.

The same sense of instability runs through the relations between the interior and exterior world, revealing a space of interiority of totally problematic and fragile limits. The blurring of the distinction between exteriority and interiority is essentially produced by the lighting, which blurs the boundaries between the bodies, objects and sets - revealing an architecture on the verge of implosion (4). Sometimes the spectator doesn’t know whether he is seeing a street or a corridor, or whether the asylum’s patio is inside or outside in relation to Franzis' narrative. The real world (the outer world) is discontinuous, illogical and has many lapses; the interior (the inner world) seems to exist in a concrete physical space, visible and exposed. So how do we know whether we are entering the sphere of the real world or leaving it, and plunging into the subconscious?

A paradigm example of this is the scene with a close-up of the face of the somnambulist, Cesare: once in the fair, our gaze is drawn towards Caligari’s tent; then the curtain opens, revealing the inside of the tent; then we see the standing coffin where Cesare is asleep. Caligari opens the lid of the coffin and it is at that precise moment when Cesare’s fascinating and secret face emerges. When he suddenly opens his eyes, the spectator expects, or longs for, that his gaze will reveal his thoughts and innermost and deepest feelings5. But no magical revelation occurs. No secret landscape of the mind is revealed - only Conrad Veidt's empty gaze as he stares towards the camera, i.e. at us all. What is revealed is precisely a sense of emptiness, a face in which nothing is inscribed and that responds negatively to the spectator’s deepest desire, which is always to see more, to delve into the most secret dimensions, to know the forbidden.

However, it is this desire that Robert Wiener refuses to satisfy, and instead of seeing beyond, the spectator finds himself or herself petrified for a moment by that Medusa-like gaze (interior or exterior, real or fictitious, we will never know it), which finally reincarnates the very fascination that always subsists in the relation between the gaze of the spectator and what the cinema gives us to see.


* Originally published in Expressionismus: retrospectiva de cinema expressionista alemão (1919-1932). Coimbra: Centro de Estudos Cinematográficos, 1995.

(1) Gilles Deleuze, Le Cinéma 1: L'Image-mouvement. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1983, p. 73.

(2) Ibidem, pp. 75-76.

(3) Ibidem, p. 77.

(4) Cf. Noel Carroll, “The Cabinet of Dr. Krakauer”, Millennium Film Journal, 1:2 (1978), pp. 83-84.
(5) See Michael Minden, “Politics and the Silent Cinema: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Battleship Potemkin", in Edward Timms & Peter Collier, eds., Visions and Blueprints: Avant-Garde Culture and Radical Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988, pp. 293.

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