The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

From Transformation to Caligari: German Expressionist Representations of “the Other on Stage and Screen

Jewish artists played a prominent role in German cultural life in the first third of the twentieth century and their contribution to the creation of German Expressionism was particularly significant. The paper will present a comparative examination of two works considered to be milestones of German Expressionism. Both were created in Germany by artists of Eastern European Jewish decent as a reaction to the horrors of WWI and both include representations of a foreign Other. The first is Ernst Toller’s play Transformation (Die Wandlung), completed in 1918; the second is Robert Wiene’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), based on Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer’s script, written in 1918-1919.

Transformation follows a pattern favored by Jewish German Expressionist playwrights and depicts the social alienation of its Jewish protagonist. An outcast in Germany’s Christian society and disillusioned by war, he rebels against paternal order. His alienation and rebellion are depicted not only thematically but also performatively, with stage directions calling for non-Naturalistic settings and an acting style reminiscent of hypnotic trance. Caligari likewise depicts the young generation’s war traumas and presents an inter-generational conflict. It similarly places at its center a figure of a foreign Other, similarly depicted using Expressionist settings and hypnotic acting.

The paper will trace the parallels, possible influences and significant differences between the use of Expressionist aesthetics as a means of representing the Other in the two works. It will show that in Transformation and on the Expressionist stage in general, the Other – and Expressionist aesthetics – is mostly associated with a call for tolerance and rebellion against paternal oppression. In Caligari’s script and final film, however, both the Other and Expressionism are threatening and associated with paternal tyranny. This shift is particularly significant considering Caligari’s paradigmatic position in German Expressionist cinema.