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The Birth of the Horror Film: German Expressionism and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

Posted in Essays with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2009 by helenparker1212

“rarely before or since has a body of films exerted such a pull towards verbal paraphrase, in which epithets like ‘dark’ and ‘demonic’, ‘twisted’, ‘haunted’ and ‘tormented’ leap onto the page.”

(Elsaesser, 2000:19)

Robert Weine’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is unanimously agreed to be both a prime example of German Expressionist cinema, and also a seminal horror film. However, the film is also something of an enigma, combining as it does, a mixture of gothic, psychologically motivated narrative, and Expressionist set design. The film’s influence on the horror genre can certainly be attributed to this gothic narrative, but the influence of it’s Expressionist aesthetic has to be considered far more sceptically than it has been by past theorists. The question of why the Expressionist aesthetic influenced Film Noir so strongly, and not horror, has to be asked when considering the film’s legacy as horror.

This essay will attempt to address the legacy of the film within the horror genre, from its origins in Modernism, the Expressionist influence in its scenography and perspective, and the Gothic influence in its narrative and themes, specifically those themes which have helped formulate some of the iconic elements of the horror genre, such as the monster, the male anxiety, and the notion of the ‘other’.


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