The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
1920, 72 minutes
directed by Robert Wiene

Really, no discussion of the relation between movies and architecture is complete without mention of this movie. The most significant aspect about this film may be the fact that it was filmed predominantly or completely within a set constructed precisely for this movie. This is in contrast to, for instance, contemporaneous Swedish filmmakers who went to great lengths to capture the actual appearance of natural conditions: snowstorms, sunsets, forests, and other natural environments. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari then, is essentially the father of the studio system of movies which came to dominate movie-making for the rest of the twentieth century. It gave birth to Hollywood as we know it today with its expansive studios of enclosed soundstages and cardboard-thin faux streetscapes.

But if this movie established the power and art of capable set design, specifically the German expressionistic architecture of Dr. Caligari, then it necessarily forces the issue: what is the relationship between a completely constructed film set and the formal world? For the film itself raises the issue in its transition between the mad world of Dr. Caligari and the world outside, but more importantly, it may have been the first movie to ask us to imagine a complete world where one previously did not exist.

The power to transport us to a place outside of our world could be conceived seen as one of the biggest draws to the multi-billion dollar movie industry. It was probably best evidenced and presaged by the panorama buildings of the nineteenth century, and certainly can explain the appeal of movies such as the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. But if the panorama buildings are the paradigm of the 19th Century, and movies of the 20th, it leads us to wonder what the next will be?


It may be of no little import that a few years ago the video game industry grossed more than the movie industry. In other words, the world now spends more money buying video games than it does watching movies. The difference is here: whereas in traditional media, books, movies, theatre or TV, there exists a linear relationship between the characters and a setting, in videogames the relationship can no longer be described as linear. In fact, the most important games of the past few years have completely given up on the linear literary elements of a beginning, middle, and end. Games like Grand Theft Auto or The Sims literally have no plot, no narrative, and no end goals, no denouement. And the most successful game ever, a vast, online multiplayer game called Worlds of Warcraft, itself takes in about one billion dollars a year. What successful games like GTA, The Sims, or WofW have in common is not great characters or a story line, but a completely immersive and entertaining setting that draws people in and makes them want to spend time in that world. If the panorama was the most powerful medium of the nineteenth century, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari initiated a long dominance of film, then maybe videogames represent the next evolution of that simple human desire to be transported somewhere else.

(originally written January 23rd, 2007)

The Unfinished Swan – Tech Demo 9/2008 from Ian Dallas on Vimeo.

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5 Responses to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”

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