How is Guy Maddin’s ‘The Saddest Music in the World’ an homage to German Expressionism?

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Tamara Richards

How is Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World an homage to German Expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)?


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Tamara Richards is an an aspiring animator/filmmaker in the 2nd year of her BA (Hons) Animation degree at Ravensbourne. Tamara enjoys creating short animated films making use of a variety of media and techniques, including both traditional and digital drawing, painting and CGI and is inspired by everything from Expressionism and independent film to art-pop music and cartoons.

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, born in Winnipeg in 1956, is known for his visually distinctive films, which are often black-and-white, grainy and filled with intertitles making them reminiscent of films of the 1920s-30s (Brooke, electronic journal, 2004). However, apart from his films’ lack of colour, there is something much more to them that makes homages to early cinema, in particular German Expressionism. This research analyses Maddin’s film The Saddest Music in the World and compares it to one of the most iconic Expressionist films, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in terms of its themes and subject matter, cinematography, lighting, mise-en-scène, set design, acting and characters.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a horror film made in Germany in 1919, was released one year after the end of World War I, which had devastating effects on the country. The Saddest Music in the World is a musical comedy, released in Canada in 2003, and is set in Winnipeg during the Great Depression of 1933. Although the two films were made about 80 years apart, both films share similar themes and deal with national identity. As David Church states in Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin the musical contest at the centre of the film, where musicians from around the world compete to have their nation’s music hailed as ‘the Saddest Music in the World’, is ‘an allegory of national identity’ (Church, 2009, p228). Though more subliminal, the theme of national identity is also present in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,; as Siegfried Kracauer argues, Dr. Caligari and Cesare represent Germany’s need for a tyrant (Kracauer, 1947, p. 72). After World War I, Germany lost its navy and several of its states to France, Belgium and Poland. This made many Germans feel that they had been stripped of their national identity and which is reflected in the character of Cesare; a living dead tyrant who follows the orders of Dr. Caligari.

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The effects of World War I are also addressed in The Saddest Music in the World through the character Fyodor, a war veteran representing Canada in the contest, with the song Red Maple Leaf, a tribute to Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the war (Garrett, website, 2004). Inevitably, themes of emotional trauma, mental illness and madness occur in both films. In the Saddest Music in the World, the character Roderick is traumatised by his missing wife and the death of his son, and moves to Serbia to assume the identity of Gavrilo the Great. There is a similarity between Roderick and Cesare; they are both characters who are ‘losing control, fighting to hold themselves together’ (Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, TV programme, 2012).

Madness is also represented in the set designs of both films; they are highly stylised, evoking a sense of dreams and being at a theatre. Much like Expressionistic paintings, distorted and out of proportion, shapes are key characteristics of Expressionist films, making ‘inner, psychological states outwardly visible’ (Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, TV programme, 2012). Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann were responsible for the distinctive set designs in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , using ‘jagged, sharp pointed forms strongly reminiscent of gothic patterns’ (Kracauer, 1947 p. 68). By using only three main sets in The Saddest Music in the World – the brewery, Lady Helen’s office and a small street (Oppenheimer, electronic journal, 2004) – the film’s Expressionistic influences are clear. Maddin said in an interview with Cineaste that he has ‘never felt that movies are obliged to represent reality. I do believe that, if they want to be good, they are obliged to represent reality transformed’ (Losier & Porton, electronic journal, 2004). The harsh, jagged and out of proportion, small sets in The Saddest Music in the World evoke a sense of claustrophobia and uneasiness, whilst the use of the so-called Dutch angle creates a sense of disorientation.

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Much like the set designs, the acting is also exaggerated. In order to make up for the lack of sound in silent cinema, the acting had to be expressive. Although Maddin’s film does have sound, the performances are over the top and melodramatic, resembling the style of acting in German Expressionist films. William Beard states that by reproducing this over the top style of acting ‘in a contemporary context’ it ‘must be disavowing stylish or contemptuously retro-kitschy or both—and these qualities are strongly present in Maddin’s films’ (Beard, electronic journal, 2005). In a similar fashion, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be seen as both a stylish art film and as a cheap horror film (Schneider, 2008, p.31). The performances are highlighted further through the use of quick cutting close ups of the characters and use of harsh, blue lighting and shadows.

The scene echoes the cinematography of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as much of the film consists of coloured tints, harsh lighting and hand painted shadows (Kracauer, 1947, p. 69). With its over the top stylisation and histrionics, is the The Saddest Music in the World really an homage to German Expressionism, or is it just a parody? Maddin addresses this:

My strategy concerning pastiche has always been to avoid it as much as possible, knowing that it’s going to be detected somehow anyway. But I like to make things as straight as possible and make a movie that seems completely unaware of any movie that has come before it. You can then let viewers decide for themselves whether this is pastiche or parody.

(Losier & Porton, electronic journal, 2004)

It is clear Maddin loves German Expressionist films and is aware of their context, but he references them with a nod and wink. His films are ‘tributes to old movies that are both earnest and ironic (but never facetious)’ (Losier, M, & Porton, R 2004) and he ‘combines genuine affection with covert autobiographical commentary’ (Porton, R 2003). Therefore, Maddin cleverly references these films and combines them with his own sense of humour and sensibility, which makes his work, The Saddest Music in the World a clever, as well as original, homage.


Beard, William (2005) ‘Maddin and Melodrama’, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 26 September, p.2-17, [Online] Available:

Brooke, Michael (2004) ‘The Saddest Music in the World’, Sight & Sound, 14, 5, p. 68, Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 27 February 2017

Church, David (2009) Playing With Memories: Essays On Guy Maddin. 1st ed. University of Manitoba Press

Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari (1919) Directed by Robert Weine [DVD, 72 minutes] Eureka Video

Enright, Robert (2003), ‘Adventures in Maddinland’, Modern Painters, 16, 3, pp. 86-89, Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 27 February 2017

Garrett, Daniel (2004) ‘The Saddest Music in the World’, Off Screen, September 2004 [Online] Available: (Accessed 09/03/17)

Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss (2012) BBC4, 30/10/12

Kracauer, Siegfried (1947). From Caligari To Hitler. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Losier, Marie & Porton, Richard (2004), ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy: An Interview with Guy Maddin’, Cineaste, 29, 3, pp. 18-25, Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 6  March 2017

Oppenheimer, Jean (2004), ‘Timeless Films of Modern Vintage’, American Cinematographer, 85, 8, pp. 20-26, Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 9 March 2017

Porton, Richard (2003), ‘The Year of the ‘Doc’ in Toronto’, Cineaste, 29, 1, pp. 90-91, Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 6 March 2017

Rist, Peter (2001) Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada, Greenwood Publishing Group Schneider Steven Jay (2008). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1st ed.

The Saddest Music In The World (2003) Directed by Guy Maddin [DVD, 96 minutes] Soda Pictures

Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 2008

list of illustrations

Cover image:Richards, Tamara (2017) My interpretation of the amputation scene from The Saddest Music in the World

Fig. 1: Ramirez, Francisco (2014), Der Gabinet Des Dr Caligari – Cecare, illustration. Francisco’s portfolio can be found here:

Fig. 2: Richards, Tamara (2017) Illustration of Dr. Caligari and Cesare

Fig. 3: Richards, Tamara (2017) My interpretation of the amputation scene from The Saddest Music in the World