The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represents to me something very real and terrible . . . that fear of things having no reason and loving evil instinctively.”[1]

Movie poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cabinet_of_Dr._Caligari

This movie is a lot of things.

            It starts in a garden. We are introduced to Francis (Friedrich Feher), who says he and his girlfriend have been subject to unspeakable horrors. The rest of the movies is told in flashback: the fair comes to town, and Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend Dr. Caligari’s Cesar the Somnambulist. Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) says Cesare (Conrad Veidt) only awakens at his command and can predict the future. Alan asks how long he has to live and Cesar says until “the break of dawn.” After meeting with Jane (Lil Dagover), a woman they mutually love, they both go home. Alan is murdered that night; Francis vows to find the killer. The murder turns out to be Cesare, who is caught trying to murder Jane. Francis tracks Dr. Caligari down to the local insane asylum, where he is the director. After Dr. Caligari goes to sleep for the evening, Francis and the other doctors discover the director had read a folktale where a Dr. Caligari roams the Italian countryside with a sleepwalker who kills people; the director was trying to recreate it with a patient from the asylum. He is apprehended and committed to the asylum where he works. After telling this tale, Francis moves from the garden and into the room recognizable as the asylum. Cesare is there, harmlessly talking to flowers. Jane thinks she’s a queen and turns down Francis’ proposal. When Francis sees the director, he flips out, insisting it is Caligari. Francis is put into a cell, with the director claiming to know how to cure him.

Let’s start with how the movie is constructed. It is divided into five acts. The anonymous reviewer of The New York Times calls it as “photoplay,” and that is the most accurate term for it. The actions are written much like a play, and it is filmed like one too. Most of the time, the camera faces the scene head on, only cutting away for close-ups of characters. The actors move into and out of frame, as if moving from the wings of the stage. At one point, Friedrich Feher leaves the set for twenty to thirty seconds and reappears with a hat and coat. Because the camera is stationary, it gives the impression of a proper audience. One isn’t watching a movie, per se, but a play being filmed on a sound stage.

            The soundstage is filled with a set constructed with what seems like little more than cardboard and paint. It gives everything a hand-made quality, and supports the idea of a local theater company producing a play. But the set is more than that. It is composed almost entirely of right angels and creates claustrophobic rooms and streets. The few city officials who appear sit on stools high above the floor; the two policemen are literally against the ceiling. Our reviewer from The Times reports: “The sets are a little mad. Everything is awry, somewhere; and, because it is almost impossible just to lay your finger on the place, the sets add to the atmosphere of mystery and terror which permeates the picture.”[2] This is most notable in the city, where the murders take place. The scenes set in the country have a definable sky and have more open space. But the country, with its craggy outcroppings and the fair, is not a safe haven. If anything, it is more unsafe and terrifying, since this is where the antagonists come from.

Francis (Friedrich Feher) sitting in his room. An example of the set design for this movie https://walkerart.org/calendar/2012/brute-heart-with-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari

            This also could be considered one of the first mystery movies. The plot is essentially a whodunit; after Alan’s murder, Francis rises to take the case. There are at least two red herrings, and Francis partners with a secondary character who helps him solve the mystery. There is a lead up to the reveal of the culprit and then an apprehension. This movie also has elements of an early horror film. The supernatural is established from the get-go; the first line of the movie is, “Spirits surround us on every side – they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.”[3] Cesare the Somnambulist is a big part of this as well. A somnambulist is a sleepwalker, but Dr. Caligari says he is the only one who can wake Cesare. So, Cesare exists in that nebulous state of life and death, not truly existing in either. It’s discovered that the source of all this mayhem is an “ancient” folktale about a name named Dr. Caligari and the sleepwalker he uses to murder people. Like 1931’s Frankenstein, what started the action was essentially a science experiment gone wrong.

            Now let’s talk about Francis and Alan. Both men are young, probably in their thirties at the oldest, and they are educated, judging by the number of books they have in their rooms. Given that this story is made/set in 1920, it is entirely possible that they served in World War I. Men from both sides were treated for “shell-shock” or what we call post-traumatic stress syndrome. Unfortunately, some men never recovered. This would be a plausible explanation for Francis’ psychosis, since the truth of his narrative is up for debate. Perhaps Francis is using his current reality – the insane asylum – to construct a narrative that helps him cope with the effects of the war. Alan is not at the asylum; did he die in the trenches? From a shell or mustard gas? In the movie, Alan fixates on the length of his life, not the specific day of his death. And while the woman we know as Jane is there, she does not acknowledge Francis as her boyfriend or even by name. So, was she even his girlfriend in the first place? Psychosis has a history of obscuring the truth, and it’s one explanation for Francis’ behavior.

So, what makes this movie essential?

            Pretty much everything listed above, but there’s one more thing that encompasses all of it: German Expressionism. German Expressionism is the use of visual distortion and exaggerated performance to show inner conflict, fears, and desires of the post-World War I era. It was a stylistic reaction to World War I, and similar phenomena, like cubism, showed up elsewhere in Europe. Arguably, Germany’s artistic expression is much darker because they lost the war and received sever economic and military punishments as a result. German expressionism is not a long-lived genre, and most of its creators would flee Germany about fifteen years later. Most of them would end up in Hollywood, where their previous experience lent them to another film genre with a similar bleak outlook: film noir.


[1] “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” The New York Times Book of Movies, ed. Wallace Schor, New York, New York: Universe, 187.

[2] Book of Movies, 186.

[3] The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, (1920; Berlin, Germany: Decla-Bioscope AG), DVD.

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