As was the case last semester, I am auditing a course at the local university; this one happens to be directly related to this blog. The class, titled “Gender and Horror Films” will most definitely provide fodder for this little online venture of mine.
These first few weeks of class, our professor has taken a “back-to-basics” approach to screenings, with the classic horror titles The Cabinet of Caligari and Vampyr serving as our texts for discussion. Both films struck me for their visual style particularly in terms of mise-en-scene. It didn’t shock me, then, to find out that the same art director, Hermann Warm, coordinated the sets, costumes, and props in both films. Hermann Warm, it turns out, played a key roll in the rise of expressionism in German cinema of the 1920s and 30s, serving as art director on some of the defining examples of this artistic movement. Oddly enough, his name tends to emerge less frequently in discussions of the movement than the directors he worked for, who include Carl Dreyer, Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang (a refreshing exception: an entry from The Morbid Imagination). Hence, his induction into my Undermining Auteurism series.
Warm’s work for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stands out most prominently due to the use of sets composed of jagged, angular lines that create a distorted, nigtmarish world. According to R. Barton Palmer, Warm used the sets to demonstrate the expressionist concept of Ballung defined as “that crystallization of the inner reality of objects, concepts, and people through an artistic expression that cuts through and discards a false exterior.” In other words, the sets are meant to make the world seem as strange is it really is, in spite of the order regularly imposed upon it through conventions in architecture, dress, and interior design. Below are some Caligari stills that demonstrate this effect. To see the entire film, click this link.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the sets of Caligari and those of other horror films, particularly Suspiria. While Suspiria cannot directly be tied to German Expressionism and distinguishes itself dramatically with its vivid use of color, production designer Guiseppe Bassan clearly gives a nod to Warm’s work in his use of murals, such as in the frame below:
Bassan also plays with scale in interesting ways, heightening ceilings, raising doorknobs, and twisting corridors to make the set seem as if it is looming and labyrinthine. Again, Caligari achieves a similar effect, mirroring the emotions that its characters feel toward their environment. The penultimate scene below demonstrates this effective use of mise-en-scene:
Of course, not all of the credit can be given to Warm. Painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig played crucial roles in developing the uncanny sets of Caligari, as did many other artists on the numerous other projects taken up by Warm. Nevertheless, Warm’s work–which includes some of the earliest horror films in cinematic history–indisputably lays a foundation for the genre as much as any of the directors with whom Warm collaborated.