The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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This article is about the 1920 film. For other uses, see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (disambiguation).
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Directed by Robert Wiene
Produced by Rudolf Meinert
Erich Pommer
Written by Hans Janowitz
Carl Mayer
Starring Werner Krauss
Conrad Veidt
Friedrich Fehér
Lil Dagover
Hans Twardowski
Music by Giuseppe Becce
Cinematography Willy Hameister
Distributed by Decla-Bioscop (Germany)
Goldwyn Distributing Company (US)
Release dates
  • 26 February 1920 (1920-02-26) (Germany)
Running time
71 minutes
Country Weimar Republic
Language Silent film
German intertitles
Budget DEM 20,000[citation needed]

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is a 1920 German silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene from a screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It is one of the most influential films of the German Expressionist movement and, according to Roger Ebert, is "the first true horror film".[1]

The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats. To add to this strange style, the actors used an unrealistic technique that exhibited "jerky" and dance-like movements.[1] This film is cited as having introduced the twist ending in cinema.[2]

The premiere of a digitally restored version of the film took place at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2014.[3] This restoration had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival "Silent Autumn" event at the Castro Theatre on September 20, 2014.


Still from the film.

The main narrative is introduced using a frame story, in which most of the plot is presented as a flashback told by the protagonist, Francis (one of the earliest examples of a frame story in film).

Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly companion are sharing stories, when a seemingly distracted woman, Jane (Lil Dagover), passes by. Francis calls her his "fiancée", and narrates an interesting tale that he and Jane share.

Francis begins his story with himself and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), who are both good-naturedly competing to be married to the lovely Jane. The two friends visit a carnival in their German mountain village of Holstenwall. They encounter the captivating Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and a near-silent somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whom the doctor keeps asleep in a coffin-like cabinet, controls hypnotically, and is displaying as an attraction. Caligari hawks that Cesare's continuous sleeping state allows him to know the answer to any question about the future, and know every secret. When Alan asks Cesare how long he shall live, Cesare bluntly replies that Alan shall die at dawn — a prophecy which is fulfilled. Alan's violent death at the hands of some shadowy figure becomes the most recent in a series of mysterious murders in Holstenwall.

Francis and Jane investigate Caligari and Cesare. Doctor Caligari finds out and orders Cesare to murder Jane. He very nearly succeeds, suggesting to Francis that Cesare and his master Caligari are indeed responsible for the recent homicides. Thanks to Jane's ethereal beauty, however, Cesare finds himself unable to stab her to death and settles for kidnapping her instead. In hot pursuit by the townsfolk, Cesare finally releases Jane as he falls over from exhaustion and dies.

In the meantime, Francis goes to Holstenwall's local psychiatric hospital to ask if there has ever been a patient there by the name of Caligari, only to be shocked to discover that Caligari is the asylum's director. With the help of some of Caligari's oblivious colleagues at the asylum, Francis discovers through old records (and diary) that the man known as "Dr. Caligari" is obsessed with the story of a mythical monk called Caligari, who in 1703 visited towns in northern Italy; and in a similar manner, used a somnambulist under his control to kill people. Dr. Caligari, insanely driven to see if such a situation could actually occur, dubbed himself "Caligari" and has since successfully carried out his string of proxy murders. Francis and the asylum's other doctors send the authorities to Caligari's office. Caligari reveals his lunacy only when he understands that his beloved slave, Cesare, has died; Caligari then becomes an inmate in his own asylum.

The narrative returns to the present moment, with Francis concluding his tale. A twist ending reveals that Francis' flashback, however, is actually his fantasy. He, Jane and Cesare are all in fact inmates of the insane asylum. The man whom he claims to be "Caligari" is actually his asylum doctor. Francis goes berserk and is put in a straitjacket and consigned to the very same cell as was the imaginary Dr. Caligari. His doctor says that since the source of his patient's "mania" has been revealed, he shall now be able to cure poor Francis.


Official Cast[edit]



Writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer first met in Berlin soon after World War I. The two men considered the new film medium as a new type of artistic expression – visual storytelling that necessitated collaboration between writers and painters, cameramen, actors, directors. They felt that film was the ideal medium through which to both call attention to the emerging pacifism in postwar Germany and exhibit radical anti-bourgeois art.[4]

Although neither had associations with any Berlin film company, they decided to develop a plot. As both were enthusiastic about Paul Wegener's works, they chose to write a horror film. The duo drew from past experiences. Janowitz had disturbing memories of a night during 1913, in Hamburg. After leaving a fair he had walked into a park bordering the Holstenwall and glimpsed a stranger as he disappeared into the shadows after having mysteriously emerged from the bushes. The next morning, a young woman's ravaged body was found. Mayer was still angered about his sessions during the war with an autocratic, highly ranked, military psychiatrist.[4]

At night, Janowitz and Mayer often went to a nearby fair. One evening, they saw a sideshow "Man and Machine", in which a man did feats of strength and predicted the future while supposedly in a hypnotic trance. Inspired by this, Janowitz and Mayer devised their story that night and wrote it in the following six weeks. The name "Caligari" came from a book Mayer had read, in which an officer named Caligari was mentioned.[4]

When the duo approached producer Erich Pommer about the story, Pommer tried to have them thrown out of his small Decla-Bioscop studio. But when they insisted on telling him their film story, Pommer was so impressed that he bought it on the spot, and agreed to have the film produced in expressionistic style, partly as a concession to his studio only having a limited quota of power and light.[4]


Goldwyn Releasing lobby card from Caligari showing doctors examining Cesare

Pommer put Caligari in the hands of designer Hermann Warm and painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, whom he had met as a soldier while painting sets for a German military theater. When Pommer began to have second thoughts about how the film should be designed, they had to convince him that it made sense to paint lights and shadows directly on set walls, floors, background canvases and to place flat sets behind the actors.[4]

Pommer first approached Fritz Lang to direct this film, but Lang was committed to work on Die Spinnen (The Spiders),[4] so Pommer gave directorial duties to Robert Wiene. Wiene filmed a test scene to prove Warm, Reimann, and Röhrig's theories, and it was so impressive that Pommer gave his artists free rein. Janowitz, Mayer, and Wiene would later use the same artistic methods on another production, Genuine, which was less successful commercially and critically.[4]

The producers (who wanted a less macabre ending) imposed upon the director a framing device to open and close the film, revealing that everything was Francis's delusion. The original story made it clear that Caligari and Cesare were real and were responsible for a number of deaths.[5]

Filming took place in Berlin during December 1919 and January 1920 at the Lixie studios (formerly owned by Continental-Kunstfilm) at 9-12 Franz-Joseph Strasse (now Max Liebermannstraße), Weißensee.[6] The film premiered at the Marmorhaus in Berlin on February 26, 1920.[7]


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered by many critics to be one of the best films ever made and one of the greatest horror films of the silent period, and holds a very rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 37 reviews.[8] The film had a profound influence on later filmmakers in creating atmosphere in their films. Critics worldwide have praised the film for its Expressionist style, complete with wild, distorted set design. Caligari has been cited as an influence on film noir, one of the earliest horror films, and a model for directors for many decades.

Upton Sinclair wrote They Call Me Carpenter in 1922. This book began with a crowd of people trying to keep Americans from seeing "Caligari" because this story of a "madman" didn't serve the purpose of art or morality. His question was whether art was to serve morality or if art exists for "art's sake."[9]

Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler (1947) postulates that the film can be considered as an allegory for German social attitudes in the period following World War I. He argues that the character of Caligari represents a tyrannical figure, to whom the only alternative is social chaos represented by the fairground.[10]

However, in Weimar Cinema and After, Thomas Elsaesser describes the legacy of Kracauer's work as a "historical imaginary".[11] Elsaesser argues that Kracauer had not studied enough films to make his thesis about the social mindset of Germany legitimate and that the discovery and publication of the original screenplay of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari undermines his argument about the revolutionary intent of its writers. Elsaesser's alternative thesis is that the filmmakers adopted an Expressionist style as a method of product differentiation, establishing a distinct national product against the increasing importation of American films. Dietrich Scheunemann, somewhat in defense of Kracauer, noted that he did not have "the full range of materials at (his) disposal". However, that fact "has clearly and adversely affected the discussion of the film", referring to the fact that the script of Caligari was not rediscovered until 1977 and that Kracauer hadn't seen the film for around 20 years when he wrote the work.[12]



Stephen Sayadian directed Dr. Caligari, which The New York Times called "a widely panned 1989 sequel of sorts that became a popular midnight movie."[13]

Adaptations and musical works inspired by the film[edit]

In 1962, a British version very loosely based on the film was made called The Cabinet of Caligari with a script by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho.[14]

In 1981, Bill Nelson was asked by the Yorkshire Actors Company to create a soundtrack for a stage adaptation of the movie. That music was later recorded for his 1982 album Das Kabinet (The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari).[15]

In 1991, the film was loosely remade as The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez by director and writer Peter Sellars. The production included significant development during filming, leading the primary actors to also receive writing credits (Mikhail Baryshnikov, who played "Cesar"; Joan Cusack, who played "Cathy"; Peter Gallagher, who played "Matt", and Ron Vawter, who played "Dr. Ramirez"). This remake was an experimental film that was screened only at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and never theatrically released.[16]

The film was adapted into an opera in 1997 by composer John Moran. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a production by Robert McGrath.[17] Numerous musicians have composed new musical scores to accompany the film. The Club Foot Orchestra premiered the score penned by ensemble founder and artistic director Richard Marriott in 1987.[18] In 2000, the Israeli Electronica group TaaPet made several live performances of their soundtrack for the film around Israel.[19]

David Lee Fisher directed a 2005 American remake that Variety described as an "undeniably clever" remix that eventually coasts by on its novelty value.[20]

In 2012, the Chatterbox Audio Theatre recorded a live soundtrack, including dialog, sound effects, and music, for the classic silent film. The movie, with this soundtrack, was released on YouTube on October 30, 2013.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (2009-06-03). "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". Retrieved 2014-05-30. 
  2. ^ "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". Tribute. Retrieved 2014-05-30. 
  3. ^ Berlin Film Festival entry
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Peary, Danny (1988). Cult Movies 3. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. pp. 48–51. ISBN 0-671-64810-1. 
  5. ^ White, Rob; Buscombe, Edward (2003). British Film Institute film classics 1. Routledge. pp. 2–4. ISBN 1-57958-328-8. 
  6. ^ Schenk,Ralf (4 September 2010). "Die Spukpioniere von Weißensee". Berliner Zeitung (in German). Retrieved 23 November 2014. 
  7. ^ Robinson, David (1997). Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari. British Film Institute. p. 47. 
  8. ^ "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 25 January 2014. 
  9. ^ They Call me Carpenter Gutenberg -- They Call me Carpenter Librivox
  10. ^ Kracauer, Siegfried (2004). From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton University Press. 
  11. ^ Elsaesser, Thomas (2000). Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary. Routledge. 
  12. ^ Scheunemann, Dietrich (2003). "The Double, the Decor, the Framing Device: Once More on Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". In Scheunemann, Dietrich. Expressionist Films: New Perspectives. Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 1-57113-068-3. 
  13. ^ Piepenburg, Erik (2013-05-30). "Their Bedside Manners Need Work". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-30. 
  14. ^ Crowther, Bosley (1962-05-26). "The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-30. 
  15. ^ Pete Prown; Harvey P. Newquist (1997). Legends of Rock Guitar: The Essential Reference of Rock's Greatest Guitarists. Hal Leonard. p. 87. ISBN 0793540429. 
  16. ^ "The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez | Archives | Sundance Institute". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  17. ^ The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari multimedia theatre piece.
  18. ^ "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari". Club Foot Orchestra. 1987-10-17. Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  19. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  20. ^ Leydon, Joe (2006-10-24). "Review: 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'". Variety. Retrieved 2014-05-30. 
  21. ^ "Chatterbox Audio Theater Releases Live THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI Recording". Broadway World. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]