The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is a 1920 German silent horror film, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, it tells the story of an insane hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders. The film features a dark and twisted visual style, with sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines, structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles, and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets.
The script was inspired by various experiences from the lives of Janowitz and Mayer, both pacifists who were left distrustful of authority after their experiences with the military during World War I. The film makes use of a frame story, with a prologue and epilogue combined with a twist ending. Janowitz has said this device was forced upon the writers against their will. The film’s design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one.
The film thematizes brutal and irrational authority. Writers and scholars have argued the film reflects a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant, and is an example of Germany’s obedience to authority and unwillingness to rebel against deranged authority. Some critics have interpreted Caligari as representing the German war government, with Cesare symbolic of the common man conditioned, like soldiers, to kill. Other themes of the film include the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity, the subjective perception of reality, and the duality of human nature.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released just as foreign film industries were easing restrictions on the import of German films following World War I, so it was screened internationally. Accounts differ as to its financial and critical success upon release, but modern film critics and historians have largely praised it as a revolutionary film. The film was voted number 12 on the prestigious Brussels 12 list at the 1958 World Expo. Critic Roger Ebert called it arguably “the first true horror film”, and film reviewer Danny Peary called it cinema’s first cult film and a precursor for arthouse films. Considered a classic, it helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema and had a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir.
As Francis sits on a bench with an older man who complains that spirits have driven him away from his family and home, 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 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 Caligari’s spectacle, where he opens a coffin-like box to reveal the sleeping Cesare. On Caligari’s order, Cesare awakens and answers questions from the audience. Despite Francis’s protests, Alan asks, “How long shall I live?” To Alan’s horror, Cesare answers, “The time is short. You die at 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 criminal in possession of a knife who is caught attempting to murder an elderly woman. When questioned by Francis and Dr. Olsen, the criminal confesses he tried to kill the elderly woman, but denies any part in the two previous deaths; he was merely taking advantage of the situation to divert blame away from himself.
At night, Francis spies on Caligari and observes what appears to be Cesare sleeping in his box. However, the real Cesare sneaks into Jane’s home as she sleeps. He raises a knife to stab her, but instead abducts her after a struggle, dragging her through the window onto the street. Chased by an angry mob, Cesare eventually drops Jane and flees; he soon collapses and dies. Francis confirms that the criminal who confessed to the elderly woman’s murder is still locked away and could not have been Jane’s attacker. Francis and the police investigate Caligari’s sideshow and realize that the “Cesare” sleeping in the box is only a dummy. Caligari escapes in the confusion. Francis follows and sees Caligari go through the entrance of an insane asylum.
Upon further investigation, Francis is shocked to learn that 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 asylum director screams, “I must become Caligari!” Francis and the doctors call the police to Caligari’s office, where they show him Cesare’s corpse. Caligari then attacks one of the staff. He is subdued, restrained in a straitjacket, and becomes an inmate in his own asylum.
The narrative returns to the present, where Francis concludes his story. In a twist ending, Francis is depicted as an asylum inmate. Jane and Cesare are patients as well; Jane believes that she is a queen, while Cesare is not a somnambulist but awake, quiet, and not visibly dangerous. The man Francis refers to as “Dr. Caligari” is the asylum director. Francis attacks him and is restrained in a straitjacket, then placed in the same cell where Caligari was confined in Francis’s story. The asylum director announces that, now that he understands Francis’s delusion, he is confident that he can cure him.
“I’m so obsessed with you
There’s nothing I can do
I must tell you all I have to give you …”
One hundred years on from its original release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a landmark of silent cinema, and a milestone in the development of film as a medium. One of the most discussed pictures of all time, Robert Wiene’s classic, which premiered in Berlin on 26 February 1920, has been called “the first true horror film” (by no less than US critic Roger Ebert). It has also been heralded as one of cinema’s earliest ‘art’ films, helping the fledgling medium to be taken seriously as an art form. As Paul Rotha once said, Caligari hit the silver screen “like a drop of wine in an ocean of salt water”.
WHEN IT’S OVER YOU’RE DEAD
DESCRIBE YOUR LIFE IN THREE WORDS OR LESS:
UNENDING TORMENT …”