The Greatest films of all time:14.The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)(Germany)


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a German silent film, directed by Robert Wiene, released in 1920, just a year after the end of world war I. Although this film has been commonly considered as a prototype of horror films, but it is also a prototype of thrillers, murder mysteries, and even films with the psychological content of psychotic or insane killers, asylums, mental hospitals, double personalities, sleep walking and else. This great frontier film is the quintessential work of Expressionist movement in cinema, showing and proving that without much camera work and movement, but the application of twisted and distorted set designs and shapes, shadows, lighting, etc. the thrills, emotions, fear and else could be pictured on the screen like painting on canvas. The film has influenced so many filmmakers around the world for years, from Fritz Lang and others in Germany, to Alfred Hitchcock and others in England and US, to the present time when one can see its impact on “The Shutter Island” of Martin Scorsese.  


Robert Wiene was born on April 27, 1873 in Breslau, Germany as the elder son of the successful theatre actor Carl Wiene. He first studied law at the University of Berlin, then followed the footstep of his father and brother, by starting to act in 1908 in small parts on stage. Four months after the Nazis took power and when Wiene’s latest film, “Taifun,” was banned on May 3, 1933, he fled Germany to work in a Hungarian film company that had invited him, then after production of “One Night in Venice” (1934), he moved to London, and finally to Paris where together with Jean Cocteau he tried to produce a sound remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Wiene died in Paris ten days before the end of production of a spy film, “Ultimatum” after having suffered from cancer.


The Film Plot:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with Francis, the main protagonist of the film sitting on a bench listening to an older man who complains that spirits have driven him away from his family and home, when a dazed woman named Jane passes them. Francis explains she is his “fiancée” and that they have suffered a great ordeal. Most of the rest of the film is a flashback of Francis’s story, which takes place in Holstenwall, a shadowy village of twisted buildings and spiraling streets. Francis and his friend Alan who are good-naturedly competing for Jane’s affections, plan to visit the town fair. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Dr. Caligari seeks a permit from the rude town clerk to present a spectacle at the fair, which features a somnambulist named Cesare. The clerk mocks and berates Dr. Caligari, but ultimately approves the permit. That night, the clerk is found stabbed to death in his bed.

The next morning, Francis and Alan visit Dr. Caligari’s spectacle, where he opens a coffin-like box (prototype for Dracula films) to reveal the sleeping Cesare. Upon Dr. Caligari’s orders, Cesare awakens and answers questions from the audience. Despite Francis’s protests, Alan asks “How long will I live?”. To Alan’s horror, Cesare answers, “Until dawn.” Later that night, a figure breaks into Alan’s home and stabs him to death in his bed. A grief-stricken Francis investigates Alan’s murder with help from Jane and her father, Dr. Olsen, who obtains police authorization to investigate the somnambulist. That night, the police apprehend a drifter criminal with a knife who is caught attempting to murder an elderly woman. When questioned by Francis and Dr. Olson, the criminal confesses he tried to kill the elderly woman, but denies any part in the two previous deaths. (prototype for double murders films)


At night, Francis spies on Dr. Caligari, and observes what appears to be Cesare sleeping in his box. However, the real Cesare sneaks into Jane’s home as she sleeps, but when observing her beauty, he seemingly falls in love with her, and instead abducts her after a struggle, dragging her through the window onto the street. (prototype for King Kong type films) Chased by an angry mob, Cesare eventually drops Jane and flees; he soon collapses and dies. Francis also confirms that the caught criminal has been locked away and could not have been the attacker. Francis and the police investigate Dr. Caligari’s sideshow and realize that the ‘Cesare’ sleeping in the box is only a dummy. (prototype for reality vs. unreality films) Dr. Caligari escapes in the confusion, and Francis follows and sees Caligari entering an insane asylum.


Upon further investigation, Francis is shocked to learn that Dr. Caligari is the asylum’s director. With help from the asylum staff, Francis studies the director’s records and diary while the director is sleeping. The writings reveal his obsession with the story of an 18th-century mystic named Caligari, who used a somnambulist named Cesare to commit murders in northern Italian towns. The director, attempting to understand the earlier Caligari, experiments on a somnambulist admitted to the asylum, who becomes his Cesare. The director screams “I must become Caligari!”. Francis and the doctors call the police to Dr. Caligari’s office, where they show him Cesare’s corpse. Dr. Caligari then attacks one of the staff, but he is subdued and restrained in a straitjacket, and becomes an inmate in his own asylum. (prototype for all asylum and mental hospital and psycho-killers, e.g. “The silence of the Lamb”)


The narrative returns to the present, where Francis concludes his story. In a twist ending, we see that Francis is actually an asylum inmate, with Jane and Cesare are patients as well; Jane believes she is a queen, while Cesare is not a somnambulist but alive, quiet, and, apparently, dangerous. The man Francis imagines to be “Dr. Caligari” is in fact the asylum director. Francis attacks him and is restrained in a straitjacket, then placed in the same cell Dr. Caligari was confined to, in Francis’s story. The director announces that, now that he understands Francis’s delusion, he is confident he can cure him, and the film ends. (prototype for all thrillers with twist ending, leaving viewers still in confusion even after the end of the film)

The production:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and carl Mayer, both of whom were pacifists by the time they met following the World War I. Janowitz served as an officer during the war, but the experience left him embittered with the military, which affected his writing. Mayer feigned madness to avoid military service during the war, which led him to intense examinations from a military psychiatrist. The experience left him distrustful of authority, and the psychiatrist served as a model for the Dr. Caligari character. Gilda Langer, an actress with whom Mayer was in love, encouraged Janowitz and Mayer to write a film together, who later became the basis for the Jane character. Langer also encouraged Janowitz to visit a fortune teller, who predicted that Janowitz would survive his military service during the war, but Langer would die. This prediction proved true, as Langer died unexpectedly in 1920, and Janowitz said it inspired the scene in which Cesare predicts Alan’s death at the fair.

The physical appearance of Dr. Caligari was inspired by portraits of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The story of Caligari is told abstractly, like a fairy tale, and includes little description about or attention toward the psychological motivations of the characters, which is more heavily emphasized in the film’s visual style. Through the film director Fritz Lang, Janowitz and Mayer met with Erich Pommer, the head of production at the Decla-Bioscop film studio, on 19 April 1919, to discuss selling the script. According to Pommer, he attempted to get rid of them, but they persisted until he agreed to meet with them, and finally he was so impressed that he singed a contract with them to make the film right away.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, uses flashback, an innovative technique at the time, that will be used for years to come in thrillers and other types of films to this day. Lang was first supposed to make the film, but since he was busy making another film, the job was given to Robert Wiene. The film was told in “frame story” style, despite the oppositions of Janowitz and Mayer who thought it will deprive the film of its revolutionary expressionism. But the frame story and the use of flashbacks style of the film later on became the styles of many other films, including “Citizen Kane”. But what it made the film great and influential to this day, it was not the frame story, but its use of flashback, its unique use of expressionism that is still rare with twisted and distorted sets, shadows, lighting, heavy make ups, etc. to convey an unreal, dreamy or insane world.


According to Janowitz, Wiene’s father who was a successful theatre actor, had “gone slightly mad when he could no longer appear on the stage”, and Janowitz believed that experience helped Wiene bring an “intimate understanding” to the source material of Caligari. Hermann Warm who designed the set for the film believed “films must be drawings brought to life”, and felt a naturalistic set was wrong for the subject of the film, instead recommending a fantastic, graphic style, in which the images would be visionary, nightmarish and out of the ordinary. Warm brought to the project his two friends, painters and stage designers Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, and Reimann suggested an Expressionist style, a style often used in his own paintings. They also conceived the idea of painting forms and shadows directly onto the sets to ensure a dark and unreal look, conveying craziness and eccentrics to the film. The dominance of Hollywood at the time, forced German film studios to seek projects that could have a combination of realistic and artistic elements so the films would be distinctive from Hollywood films. The costumes in the film seem to resemble a wide variety of time periods, from Romanticism to abstracts and ordinary German clothes from the 1920s.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was shot entirely in a studio without any exterior shots, which was unusual for films of the time, but helped to dictate the film an Expressionist visual style. The original title cards for the film featured stylized, misshapen lettering, a bizarre style, which matches that of the film as a whole, mimics the lettering of Expressionistic posters at the time. The original title cards were tinted in green, steely-blue and brown that adds to the flavor of the film as a thriller, horror and murder mystery. Although the camera does not play a major part in the film, that later on adapted by Hitchcock similarly and more so, filming on only a set or a few with not much camera movements but application of shadows, lighting, acting, etc. to create thrill and horror. So the cinematography of the film tends to alternate between medium shots at straight-on angles and abrupt close-ups to create a sense of shock and horror, with a few long shots or panning movement.

 A visual masterpiece:


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more visual than any film of its own time and even today, not only a cinematic visual, but an artistic visual, painting and architectural. The film is dark, twisted and bizarre, with radical and deliberate distortions in perspective, form, dimension and scale deliberately created to convey a chaotic and unhinged visionary to match with the story content. The sets are dominated by sharp-pointed forms and oblique and curving lines, with narrow and spiraling streets, and structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles, giving the impression they could collapse or explode at any given moment. The whole film seems as if it is a dream or in a better word, representation of insane minds that it seeks to portray. Trees with spiky leaves and grass sharp looking like knives, all create the thrill and horror. The landscape is painted on canvas, as opposed to a constructed set, and shadows and streaks of light are painted directly onto the sets, further distorting the viewer’s sense of perspective and three-dimensionality. Buildings are clustered and interconnected in a cubist-like architecture, surrounded by dark and twisted back alleys. The rooms have radically offset windows with distorted frames, doors that are not squared, and chairs that are too tall. Strange designs and figures are painted on the walls of corridors and rooms, and trees outside have twisted branches that sometimes resemble tentacles.


The film is a very original, not only for the style of Expressionism, but experimental film technology and special effects that taught the future filmmakers the bravery to invent and experiment and to be unconventional. The visual artistry of the film is depiction of the twisted realm of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and deranged fixation, by genius use of distorted physics of the set, darkness, shadows, heavy make-ups, etc. The visual style of Caligari conveys a sense of anxiety and terror to the viewer, giving the impression of a nightmare or deranged sensibility, or a place transformed by evil, in a more effective way than realistic locations or conventional design concepts could. The majority of the film’s story and scenes are memories recalled by an insane narrator, and as a result the distorted visual style takes on the quality of his mental breakdown, giving the viewers the impression that they are inside the mind of a madman. Often in the film, set pieces are emblematic of the emotional state of the characters in the scene. For example, the courtyard of the insane asylum is vastly out of proportion. The characters seem too big for the small building, and the courtyard floor features a bizarre pattern, all of which represent the patients’ damaged frames of mind. Likewise, the scene with the criminal in a prison cell features a set with long vertical painted shadows resembling arrowheads, pointing down at the squatting prisoner in an oppressive effect that symbolizes his broken-down state.


The sets occasionally feature circular images that reflect the chaos of the film, presenting patterns of movement that seem to be going nowhere, such as the merry-go-round at the fair, moving at a tilted angle that makes it appear at risk of collapsing. Other elements of the film convey the same visual motifs as the sets, including the costumes and make-up design for Dr. Caligari and Cesare, both of which are highly exaggerated and grotesque. Even the hair of the characters has an Expressionistic design element, especially Cesare’s black, spiky, jagged locks. While only Dr. Caligari and Cesare are the only two characters in the film with Expressionistic make-up and costumes, making them appear to be the only madmen in this distorted world, the normal appearance of Francis and others is a tricky twist when at the end, the viewer will discover that all are mad and in asylum.


The theme of the film:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been interpreted by some critics of having an anti-Nazi theme. But since the film was made just a year after the end of world war I and almost two decades before the start of the world war II, and quite some years before the rise of Nazi party and Hitler to the power, the film is not that timely close to be an anti-Nazi film as much as “Metropolis” of Fritz Lang is in 1927. Kracauer in his book From “Caligari to Hitler” argues that Dr. Caligari character is symbolic of a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant, which he calls the German “collective soul”, and that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are premonitions of Hitler, ruling over the weak-willed, puppet-like somnambulist prefigures of Germans. This author believes that Cesare symbolizes those who have no mind of their own and under the influence of hypnosis commit murders. This view wrongly put the whole German people at fault for the Nazi party actions and the world war II, even before it happens. More than half of the German population did not vote for the Nazi party and did not elect Hitler as the chancellor of Germany, while they were under pressure, terror and propaganda to do so.


The only theme of the film, if one tries to see truly and away from any self-made projections, is “duality” and contrast between sane and insane, murderer and victim, master and blindfolded obedient, reality and delusions or dream and nightmare. This duality runs through the same subject as well, such as Dr.Caligari as the director and psychiatrist of the asylum and at the same time, a madman and a murderer, or Francis to the end of the film, appearing as a normal and sane person, then is discovered to be insane as well. This totally tricks and confuses the audience at the end so not yet knowing the border between reality and delusion, dream and nightmare. This duality within the same person, sanity and insanity in one, will later be a subject of many Dr.Jekyl and Mr. Hyde’s films on the screen. The visual elements of the film also convey a sense of duality, particularly in the contrasts between black and white. This is particularly prevalent in the sets, where black shadows are set against white walls, but also in other elements like the costumes and make-up. For instance, Dr. Caligari wears mostly black, but white streaks are present in his hair and on his gloves. Cesare’s face is a ghostly white, but the darks of his eyes are heavily outlined in black. Likewise, Jane’s white face contrasts with her deep, dark eyes.


The Release and critics:

The premiere of the film a month after completion in Germany was highly successful, showing at the theatre for four weeks, an unusual amount for the time, and then returning two weeks later. Apparently some women in the audience screamed when Cesare opened his eyes during his first scene, and fainted during the scene in which Cesare abducts Jane. A year later when the film was released in different US cities, it was a success as well,then the film captured city after city in Europe and was played in one Paris theatre for seven consecutive years, a record that remained intact until the release of Emmanuelle in 1974.


Most critics specially in Germany were unanimous in praising the film as the first work of art on the screen. But there were critics who criticized the unconventional and unusual style of the film and its lack of much camera work or blamed its theatrical style. Some in the Hollywood film industry felt threatened by the potential rivalry and spoke out against Caligari’s release, condemning it as a “foreign invasion”! Nevertheless, the film remained popular in the United States, and several American reviewers compared it to an Edgar Allan Poe story. A New York Times review likened it to modernist art that gives dimensions and meaning to shape, making it an active part of the story, instead of merely the conventional and inert background. Albert Lewin, a critic who eventually became a film director and screenwriter, called Caligari “the only serious picture, exhibited in America so far, that in anything like the same degree has the authentic thrills and shock of art”. A story in a November 1921 edition of Exceptional Photoplays, an independent publication issued by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, wrote the film “occupies the position of unique artistic merit”, and that American films in comparison looked like they were made for “a group of defective adults at the nine-year-old level”.

Caligari was a critical success in France, and it was hailed as “superb” and “What a lesson to all directors”, “overthrowing the realist dogma” of filmmaking. While early reviews were more divided, modern film critics and historians have largely praised Caligari as a revolutionary film, “the first true horror film”, “the cinema’s first cult film” and a precursor for arthouse films. In October 1958, at the Brussels World’s Fair, Caligari was ranked as the twelfth-best film of all time during a poll from 117 film critics, filmmakers and historians from around the world, as the first universal film poll in history, where “The Battleship of Potmekin” was voted by majority, the greatest film of all time. Later on the film was hailed and interpreted as “More than any other film, (Caligari) convinced artists, critics and audiences that the movie was a medium for artistic expression”, or “No other film’s art direction has ever come up with so original a visualization of dementia”.


The Influence:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been so influential in cinema that the term “caligarism” was coined as a result, referring to a style of similar films that focus on such themes as bizarre madness and obsession, particularly through the use of visual distortion. The film also signified the importance of set designers in cinema, and collaborative effort, including its director, set designers and actors in filmmaking. The film probably had as much of a long-term effect on Hollywood directors as Battleship Potemkin, and both have been hailed the “two most momentous advances in the development of the cinema”, and have “served to attract to the cinema audience many people who had hitherto regarded the film as the low watermark of intelligence” at the time. Caligari influenced the style and content of Hollywood films in the 1920s and early 1930s, avant-garde cinema and film noir period of the 1940s and 50s, both in visual style and narrative tone. Noir films tended to portray everyone, even the innocent, as the object of suspicion, a common thread in Caligari. The genre also employs several Expressionistic elements in its dark and shadowy visual style, abstract photography, distorted and expressive make-up and acting. Some have also argued that the influence of the film on Ingmar Bergman films, though Bergman himself, however, has downplayed the influence of German Expressionism on his work.



In closing remarks on “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, this great and unique film, made heroically in an unusual cinematic style for the time and for many years to come, with less stress on the camera movement, but set design, make ups and lighting, all in an expressionist manner, hard to conceive possible in cinema. Now more than 96 years later, this great work one more time, will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is so original that no one even the opposing critics of the time, the lovers of camera movement and editing, could doubt its originality. The film is original not in application of some invention in cinematic techniques, but for incorporating expressionist art movement from paintings and architectural set design into cinema. The film proved the possibility of impossible on the celluloid, and that cinema could be a true art form, and filmmakers could experience avant-garde.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as detailed here, is not only in its unusual style of expressionism in cinema with its distorted sets, but the application of lighting, shadows, makeups, and else to make a foundation for many horror and thriller films to come. The technicality of the film is not only in its unusual techniques, but in its theme and story content that creates thrills, horror, confusion and obliterates the border between reality, dream, nightmare, sanity and insanity.
  3. Impact Factor: Much has been said here and else about the impact of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the history of Cinema and different types of films from film noir, to thrillers, horrors, and else to the present time, as recent as “The Shutter Island” of Martin Scorsese. If not many films copied the expressionist, bizarre and unrealistic style of the film, they did so by adapting its use of duality, the theme of the story, lighting, use of shadows and heavy makeups, evident in many great works as close as Hitchcock’s and as far as Martin Scorsese.  
  4. Survival: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has obviously not only survived the test of time, but has been a constant and still ongoing debate and subject of discussion and teaching among the film historians, critics and else. This film did not survive in its remake as there are not many, but in its many adaptations in one form or another all across the globe and ages.



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