Art Imitating Life? a Film Analysis of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

1139 Words Dec 17th, 2010 5 Pages
Art Imitating Life? In his assessment of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, (1920), Noel Burch describes the film as a play on “carefully contrived ambiguity,” (Burch, 174). The spectator of the film, the audience is both drawn in as a participant, a “motionless voyager” (Bordwell, 96, quoting Burch) forced to imagine their own dialogue, action, and expression, and then all at once, harkened back to severe reality with contrived moments. This play between audience immersion and expulsion from the film’s environment characterizes Director Robert Wiene’s simultaneous acceptance and rejection of what we would call institutional mode of representation (IMR). In this essay I will discuss IMR and key moments in film where departure from it is …show more content…
Dr. Caligari, in doing so, serves not only to create an alternate reality, but an alternate account of reality, a distinct epistemology/ontology. We see a similar break with IMR later in the film, in the trips back and forth from the foyer of the insane asylum to Dr. Caligari’s office and to Francis’ cell. The cell and Caligari’s office have the painted, contrived background used throughout the film, whereas the public space in the asylum uses a realistic setting with natural symmetry and depth of field (beginning 1:06:50). Second, and more subtly, the film breaks with the institutional mode of representation when the audience is treated as a motionless, fixed point, around which the drama revolves. For example, when Francis is told that Alan has been killed and moves toward the camera (23:39) and the messenger retreats, become part of the scenery (24:40) all of the camera’s attention is given to the relationship between the audience and Francis—our complicity in his despair becomes the focus of the film, not his despair alone. This clearly, must be a break from the IMR—why would Francis move away from the person who wishes to comfort him? To be alone with the audience. Bordwell describes the effort to make character psychological central to the film a feature of IMR (p. 96) but any move that suggests the narrative world is not an inaccessible vacuum is a break from it. I suggest that this moment—Francis’ grief—constitutes a break

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