The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Review


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Director: Robert Wiene



The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a quintessential example of German Expressionist movie-making. It features a complex, non-linear narrative pushing the boundaries of early cinema with twisted, oblong sets and long, oddly shaped shadows creating a fractured dreamworld of horrifying delights. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is haunting and enchanting, the set designs are twisted and nightmarish, and the acting is perfect for the tone of the film. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not only one of the best films to emerge from the silent era, but also one of the greatest films of all time full stop.

The screenplay for this film was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both Bohemian and Austrian/Jewish German writers. The story came to Janowitz one evening when he was walking through a carnival in Hamburg, Germany when he heard laughter and suddenly a young girl ran by, disappearing just ahead into the bushes. He also saw a strange man lurking in the shadows behind her. Later, he read in a newspaper of a girl (perhaps the one he saw) who had been murdered at the carnival. Thus, the plot of one of the first truly incredible horror films was formed based on the disappearance of a young girl. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the first films to employ the use of flashbacks, and it also one of the first films to contain a twist ending. It was released in Weimar Germany during the jaded malaise following the First World War. Before the release of the film, mysterious posters reading “Du muss Caligari warden” (you must become Caligari) began popping up all over Germany as marketing for the film.

The cast includes Frederic Feher (Francis), Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), and Conrad Veidt (Cesare, the somnambulist) who later appeared in Casablanca as Major Strausser.


The film opens with a man named Francis and an elderly friend sitting on a bench in a forested wilderness. A ghostly woman walks by and Francis says the apparition is his fiancé. He proceeds to tell a harrowing story. The first title reads “Spirits surround us on every side…they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.”

The flashback begins, Francis and his friend Alan are competing to see who will be the lover of the ghostly woman from the opening scene, her name is “Jane.” They travel to the fair at Holstenwall where they encounter a strange carnie named Dr. Caligari who presents his 23 year-old somnambulist, Cesare. Dr. Caligari keeps Cesare asleep in a coffin or “cabinet” and he claims Cesare can foretell the future by revealing secrets. Alan decides Cesare a question: “how long do I have to live?” to which Cesare responds that Alan has only until dawn. That night, the murder of Alan is brilliantly told through a series of shots highlighting a mysterious shadow cast on the wall (a classic trope of German Expressionism) –this technique contains the seed of the greats like Hitchcock and Welles.

Next, Dr. Caligari spots Francis and Jane spying on him and Cesare. He then orders Cesare to kill Jane, but in a stylized and intense scene filled with dramatic irony, we watch Cesare sneak up on Jane’s bed while she sleeps, but he cannot bring himself to stab Jane. He falls in love instead and kidnaps Jane from her room, lead to an extended chase scene. Eventually Cesare dies of exhaustion from the chase -he didn’t kill Jane because of her beauty.

Francis goes to visit a mental asylum to seek out Caligari only to find that Caligari is in fact the director of the institution. Francis reads Caligari’s journals and learns that he is obsessed with an Italian man also named “Caligari” who had a somnambulist in 1703 which he used to kill people. Francis and the other authorities confront Caligari about it, but when Caligari learns that Cesare, his prized somnambulist, is dead Caligari lunges outward in a rage trying to kill them all. They restrain Caligari and lock him up.

"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt

The narrative returns to Francis on the bench in the woods from the beginning of the film, but in a twist-ending we discover that Francis is actually a patient at the asylum and the story is only a fantasy. “Caligari” is the asylum director and they restrain Francis once he sees Caligari again. The doctor says he can cure Francis, now that he has discovered his “mania” –Caligar says Francis believes himself to be the infamous Dr. Caligari– “you must become Caligari… you must become Caligar…” And so the film ends on an ambiguous note. Was this all the mere fantasy of a madman in insane asylum? Or is Caligari the true madman?

Throughout the film, many of the shadows cast are actually drawings on the ground or walls, and the shapes of building edifices have been deliberately manipulated to appear fragmented and obscure. One of the key notions of the Expressionist movement is Ballung, or the crystallization of inner objects, concepts, and people through an artistic expression that cuts through and discards a false exterior. The sets are all made of paper with shadows drawn on them and at the time they were all built for $800 while the actors were paid $30 per day. Writer, Janowitz, was upset that Director Robert Wiene framed the story as a flashback because he wanted it to instead be viewed an indictment of the German government for its role in World War I, but instead Wiene glorified authority by placing Francis in an asylum.

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