The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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by Merrick Doll


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a German film from 1920, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both of whom emerged from World War I strongly embittered against the wartime government.  The two writers used the powerful new medium of film to create an expressionist masterpiece, which became highly successful and is generally regarded as one of the first horror films.  It recounts the story of a mad fair performer and the sleepwalker who he sends to commit murders in the night.

Plot Summary

The plot of Caligari is a frame narrative that begins with Francis sitting in a courtyard with another character.  The two see a seemingly mesmerized woman (Jane) walk by, inspiring Francis to tell the story of some recent, strange events.  The movie then moves to the inner story, set in a fictional North German town, into which a fair has recently moved.  With the fair come Dr. Caligari and his spectacle: a somnambulist (sleepwalker) named Cesare who, in a dreamlike trance, can prophetically answer questions.  Before he is allowed to perform, Caligari must obtain a license from the arrogant town clerk, who laughs at Caligari about his show.  The next morning, this clerk is found stabbed to death.

Francis and his friend Alan attend the fair and step into Caligari’s tent, where they observe Cesare, in a trance, step out of a cabinet and answer questions from the audience.  Alan excitedly asks Cesare how long he has to live, to which Cesare replies, “Until Dawn.”  When dawn comes, Alan is discovered dead, stabbed just like the clerk.  This causes Francis to suspect Caligari and Cesare.

Francis’s investigations into Caligari prove unfruitful, although a copycat killer, who claims he is not the sought-after murder, is caught in the act of trying to kill a woman.  Though this man is in custody, Francis remains suspicious of Caligari and returns in the night to peer through the window of Caligari’s wagon, where he observes the somnambulist asleep in his box.  At the same time, Cesare is in Jane’s room, with a knife poised to stab her, but, struck by her beauty, decides instead to carry her away, pursued by her awoken father and other citizens of the town.  Cesare eventually drops Jane and dies of exhaustion.  Jane later insists that it was Cesare who attacked her, though Francis swears he saw the sleepwalker asleep in Caligari’s wagon.

To further investigate, Francis and a couple of police officers search Caligari’s wagon and discover that the Cesare in the box is actually a dummy.  Caligari escapes and takes refuge in an insane asylum, followed by Francis.  When Francis calls upon the director of the asylum, he is horrorstruck to learn that Caligari and the director are the same person.

The next night, while Caligari sleeps, Francis searches Caligari’s office, finding indisputable evidence of his crimes.  To make Caligari confess, Francis confronts him with the corpse of the dead Cesare, which causes Caligari to go insane and be put into a strait jacket.

The frame then closes as Francis finishes his story.  He and his companion return to the asylum, whereupon they meet a group of other patients, among them Cesare.  When the director appears, Francis accuses him of being Caligari.  Upon hearing this name, the director claims that he now knows Franics’s affliction and will be able to heal him.

Caligari and Expressionism

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often hailed as a masterpiece of German expressionism.  Kasimir Edschmid defines expressionism as “a reaction against the atom-splitting of Impressionism, which reflects the iridescent ambiguities, disquieting diversity, and ephemeral hues of nature."[1]   To the expressionist, it would be absurd to reproduce the world as purely and simply as it is (Eisner 10); instead, the artist focuses on feelings and perceptions, which reflect expressionism’s relationship to modernism.

Expressionist artists commit themselves to impulses, which results in the desire to express emotion through extreme visuals.  Often, aesthetic value is exchanged for emotional power, and though expressionist artwork may not be the most pleasing to the eye, it nonetheless elicits an emotional response from its viewer.  This is achieved in Caligari through its unique set design.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has become synonymous with cinematic expressionism.[2]  The visuals in the film pay homage to the expressionism in painting as practiced in the 1900s and 1910s (Reimer 71).  Reality is reproduced as if it were reflected in a fun house mirror.  The distortions, however, do not obscure the objects but instead render them in distorted shapes.  Elongated shadows are painted onto set walls, and the streets wind crookedly past houses that are equally crooked.

Everything in the background is off center and slanted, as if it could slide right out of the frame.  The scene in which Cesare looms over the sleeping form of Jane excellently portrays this.  Cesare must first climb through a trapezoidal window into a house whose walls are diagonal.  These walls only serve to match the equally slanted furniture, and all of these effects serve to enhance the distorted reality seen throughout the film.  The world, created to be both familiar and strange, speaks to the physical and psychological horrors Germans experienced after the end of the war (Reimer 72).  According to Kracauer in his From Caligari to Hitler, “to a revolutionized people, expressionism seemed to combine the denial of bourgeois tradition with faith in man’s power feely to shape society and nature.  On account of such virtues it may have cast a spell over many Germans upset by the breakdown of their universe."[3]  Kracauer's discussion of Caligari in his book is one of the most well-known and lasting interpretations of the film.


Kracauer saw the film as a revolutionary story in which Janowitz and Mayer attacked the omnipotence of a state authority that manifested itself in universal conscription and declaration of war during World War I (Kracauer 64).  He saw in Caligari a figure of unlimited authority that idolized power and used this power to violate all human rights and values.  Cesare represents the proxy through which Caligari commits his crimes; he is not a guilty murderer but actually a victim of Caligari himself.  Kracauer claims that Janowitz and Mayer created Cesare “with the dim design of portraying the common man who, under the pressure of compulsory military service, is drilled to kill and to be killed” (Kracauer 65).  The revolutionary aspect of the story becomes apparent in the end, when Francis and reason overpower the insane authority of Caligari.

The frame, however, would appear to negate this revolutionary story.  The revelation that Francis is insane and a patient in the asylum himself casts doubt on the veracity of the story which he recounts, absolving Caligari of his crimes and diminishing the social critique of the story.  Kracauer, however, offers an explanation for this frame.  He claims that the original screenplay written by Janowitz and Mayer did not include the frame at all; the production company and the director Wiene forced the frame, “a change against which the two authors violently protested. But no one heeded them” (Kracauer 66).  Thus a revolutionary film is transformed into a conformist one.

Kracauer believes this frame to reflect a general trend in public thought at the time.  During the postwar years, Germans tended to withdraw from the outside world into the intangible realm of the soul.  “By putting the original into a box, this version faithfully mirrored the general retreat into a shell” (Kracauer 67) and so the original story was not mutilated but framed in symbolism.

The fair also represents the general trend of Germans retreating into a shell to escape the postwar world.  People of all classes and ages enjoy losing themselves in the fair, in the glaring colors and sounds.  This is yet another hint at modernism, in which cities are portrayed with the same mind-numbing effects.  Adults regress back to their childhood days in which games and serious affairs are identical and there is little responsibility (Kracauer 73).  The fair reflected the chaotic condition of postwar Germany.

Thomas Elsaesser, in his Weimar Cinema and After, claims that the purpose of the expressionism and peculiar style of Caligari is simply an attempt to sell itself.  “As entertainment made for profit, Weimar cinema was responsive to the point of clairvoyance to the desires and pleasures as well as anxieties and secret fears of its primary audience."  Another critic who agrees with this assessment is Lotte H. Eisner, who in her The Haunted Screen admits that “German industry immediately latched on to anything of an artistic kind in the belief that it was bound to bring in money in the long run” (Eisner 19).  Her assessment of the movie focuses mostly on its aesthetics and how expressionism is used in the film to create a visual representation of the world in the mind of a madman.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is praised worldwide for its anti-authoritarian message and expressionistic style.  Though this style may have been used only as a way to sell itself, it nonetheless offers a stunning depiction of post-war Germany.  The film is cited as one of the first horror films and influenced the development of film noir.  Caligari remains to this day an important part of the history of German cinema.
  1. Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: University of California, 1969), 10. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  2. Robert Reimer, Historical Dictionary of German Cinema (New York: The Scarecrow, Inc., 2008), 71. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler (New York: North Rivers, 1947), 68. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.

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