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]




The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both of whom were pacifists by the time they met following World War I.[4][5] Janowitz served as an officer during the war, but the experience left him embittered with the military, which affected his writing.[6][7] Meyer feigned madness to avoid military service during the war,[4][8] which led him to intense examinations from a military psychiatrist.[4][5][9][10] The experience left him distrustful of authority,[4][6][9] and the psychiatrist served as a model for the Dr. Caligari character.[11][12] Janowitz and Mayer were introduced in June 1918 by a mutual friend, actor Ernst Deutsch.[13] Both writers were penniless at the time.[14] Gilda Langer, an actress with whom Mayer was in love, encouraged Janowitz and Mayer to write a film together. She later became the basis for the Jane character. Langer also encouraged Janowitz to visit a fortune teller, who predicted that Janowitz would survive his military service during the war, but Langer would die. This prediction proved true, as Langer died unexpectedly in 1920, and Janowitz said it inspired the scene in which Cesare predicts Alan's death at the fair.[8][15]

Although neither had any associations the film industry,[9] Janowitz and Mayer wrote a script over six weeks during the winter of 1918–19.[12] In describing their roles in the writing, Janowitz called himself "the father who planted the seed, and Mayer the mother who conceived and ripened it".[16] The Expressionist filmmaker Paul Wegener was among their influences.[9][10] The story was partially inspired by a circus sideshow the two visited on Kantstrasse in Berlin,[9][12] called "Man and Machine", in which a man performed feats of great strength after becoming hypnotized.[4][9][10] They first visualized the story of Caligari the night of that show.[10] Several of Janowitz's past experiences influenced his writing, including memories of his hometown of Prague,[17][18] and, as he put it, a mistrust of "the authoritative power of an inhuman state gone mad" due to his military service.[17] Janowitz also believed he had witnessed a murder in 1913 near an amusement park on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, beside the Holstenwall, which served as another inspiration for the script. According to Janowitz, he observed a woman disappear into some bushes, from which a respectable-looking man emerged a few moments later, and the next day Janowitz learned the girl was murdered.[4][5][9][17][19] Holstenwall later became the name of the town setting in Caligari.[4][5][17]

Janowitz and Mayer are said to have set out to write a story denouncing arbitrary authority as brutal and insane.[4] Janowitz said it was only years after writing the script that he realized exposing the "authoritative power of an inhuman state" was the "subconscious intention" of the writers.[16][20] However, Hermann Warm, who designed the film's sets, said that Mayer had no political intentions when he wrote the film.[21][22] Film historian David Robinson noted that Janowitz did not refer to anti-authority intentions in the script until many decades after Caligari was released, and he suggested Janowitz's recollection may have changed in response to later interpretations to the film.[22] The film they wrote was entitled Das Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, using the English spelling "Cabinet" rather than the German "Kabinett".[23] The completed script contained 141 scenes.[24] Janowitz has claimed the name "Caligari", which was not settled upon until after the script was finished, was inspired by a rare book called ‘’Unknown Letters of Stendhal'’, which featured a letter from the French novelist Stendhal referring to a French officer named Caligari he met at the La Scala theater in Milan.[4][11][25] However, no record of any such letter exists, and film historian John D. Barlow suggested Janowitz may have fabricated the story.[26] The physical appearance of Dr. Caligari was inspired by portraits of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.[14] The character's name is spelled "Calligaris" in the only known surviving script, although in some instances the final "s" is removed. Other character names are also spelled differently from the final film: Cesare appears as "Caesare", Alan is "Allan" or sometimes "Alland" and Dr. Olfen is "Dr. Olfens". Likewise, unnamed characters in the final film have names in the script, including the town clerk ("Dr. Lüders") and the house-breaker ("Jakob Straat").[27]

The story of Caligari is told abstractly, like a fairy tale, and includes little description about or attention toward the psychological motivations of the characters, which is more heavily emphasized in the film's visual style.[28] The original script shows few traces of Expressionist influence that are prevalent in the film's sets and costumes.[29] Through film director Fritz Lang, Janowitz and Mayer met with Erich Pommer, head of production at the Decla-Bioscop film studio, on April 19, 1919, to discuss selling the script. According to Pommer, he attempted to get rid of them, but they persisted until he agreed to meet with them.[9][14] Pommer reportedly asked the writers to leave the script with him, but they refused, and instead Mayer read it aloud to him.[14] Pommer and his assistant, Julius Sternheim, were so impressed that he refused to let them leave until a contract was signed, and he purchased the script from them that night.[14]<[30] The writers had originally sought no fewer than 10,000 marks, but were given 3,500, with the promise of another 2,000 once the film went into production and 500 if it was sold for foreign release, which the producers considered unlikely.[30] The contract, today preserved at Berlin's Bundesfilmarchiv, gave Pommer the right to make any changes to the script deemed appropriate. Pommer said he was drawn to the script because he believed it could be filmed inexpensively, and it bore similarities to films inspired by the macabre horror shows of the Grand Guignol theater in Paris, which were popular at the time.[14] Pommer later said: "They saw in the script an 'experiment'. I saw a relatively cheap film".[31]

Frame story[edit]

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari makes use of a "Rahmenerzählung", or frame story, with both a prologue and epilogue establishing the main body of the film as a flashback,[32] an innovative technique at the time.[33][34] Fritz Lang has claimed that, during early discussions about his possible involvment with the film, he suggested the addition opening scene with a "normal" style, which would lead the public into the rest of the film without confusion.[21][35][36] However, it remains unclear whether Lang suggested the frame story structure itself, or simply gave advice on how to write a frame story that was already agreed upon,[21] and some writers, like film historian David Robinson, have questioned whether Lang's recollection is correct.[36] Director Robert Wiene was supportive of the changes.[37] Janowitz has claimed he and Mayer were not privy to discussions about adding the frame story and strongly opposed its inclusion, believing it had deprived the film of its revolutionary and political significance;[21][27] he wrote that it was "an illicit violation, a raping of our work" that turned the film "into a cliché, in which the symbolism was to be lost".[27] Janowitz claims the writers sought legal action to stop the change, but were unsuccessful.[27] He also claims they did not see the finished film with the frame story until a preview was shown to studio heads, after which the writers "expressed our dissatisfaction in a storm of thunderous remonstrances". They had to be persuaded not to publicly protest the film.[27]

In his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer argued, based largely on an unpublished typescript written and provided by Janowitz,[19] that the film originally included no frame story at all and only included the main story, starting with the fair coming to town and ending with Dr. Caligari becoming institutionalized. Kracauer argued the frame story glorified authority and was added to turn a "revolutionary" film into a "conformistic" one.[4][38][39][40] (See the Themes section for more.) No surviving copies of the film were believed to exist to confirm this fact, until the early 1950s when actor Werner Krauss revealed he still had his copy. Krauss refused to part with it, and it was not until 1978, after his death, that it was purchased by the German film archive Deutsche Kinemathek.[27][40] It remained unavailable for public consumption until 1995, when a full transcript was published.[27]

The script revealed that a frame story indeed was part of the original Caligari screenplay, albeit a significantly different one than that in the final film.[4][5][40] The original manuscript opens on an elegant terrace of a large villa, where Francis and Jane are hosting a party, and the guests insist that Francis tell them a story that happened to him 20 years earlier. The conclusion to the frame story is missing from the script.[4][40] Critics widely agree the discovery of the screenplay strongly undermines Kracauer's theory,[35][40] with some, like German film historian Stephen Brockmann, even arguing it disproves his claims altogether.[5] Others, however, like film historian John D. Barlow, argues it does not completely settle the issue, as the original screenplay's frame story simply serves to introduce the main plot, rather than subvert it as the final film's version does.[4]


Goldwyn Releasing lobby card from Caligari showing doctors examining Cesare

Many details about the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are in dispute and will probably remain unsettled due to the large number of people involved in the making of the film, many of whom have recalled it differently or dramatized their own contributions to its production.[41][42][43][44] Production of the film was delayed about four or five months after the script was purchased.[14] Pommer originally chose Lang as the director of Caligari, and Lang even went so far as to hold preparatory discussions about the script with Janowitz,[14] but he was involved in the filming of The Spiders and became unavailable, so Robert Wiene was selected instead.[9][32][45][46] According to Janowitz, Wiene's father, a successful theater actor, had "gone slightly mad when he could no longer appear on the stage", and Janowitz believed that experience helped Wiene bring an "intimate understanding" to the source material of Caligari.[47]

Decla producer Rudolf Meinert introduced Hermann Warm to Wiene and provided Warm the Caligari script, asking him to come up with proposals for the design.[48] Warm believed "films must be drawings brought to life",[49] and felt a naturalistic set was wrong for the subject of the film, instead recommending a fantastic, graphic style,[21][48] in which the images would be visionary, nightmarish and out of the ordinary.[50] Warm brought to the project his two friends, painters and stage designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig,[21][51][52] both of whom were associated with the Berlin art and literary magazine Der Sturm.[21][49][53] The trio spent a full day and part of the night reading the script,[51] after which Reimann suggested an Expressionist style,[21][51][54] a style often used in his own paintings.[48][51][54] They also conceived the idea of painting forms and shadows directly onto the set to ensure a dark and unreal look.[21] According to Warm, the three approached Wiene with the idea and he immediately agreed,[21][51][55] although Wiene has made claims that he conceived the film's Expressionist style.[51] Meinert agreed to the idea after one day's consideration, telling Warm, Reimann and Röhrig to make the sets as "crazy" and "eccentrically" as possible.[31][51] He embraced the idea for commercial, not aesthetic reasons: Expressionism was fashionable at the time, so he concluded even if film received bad reviews, the artistic style would garner attention and make it profitable.[31]

Wiene filmed a test scene to demonstrate Warm, Reimann, and Röhrig's theories, and it was so impressed the producers that the artists were given free rein.[9] Pommer later said he was responsible for placing Warm, Reimann and Röhrig in charge of the sets.[56] But Warm has claimed that, although Pommer was in charge of production at Decla when Caligari was made, he was not actually a producer on the film itself. Instead, he says Meinert was the true film's true producer, and that it was he who gave Warm the manuscript.[21][51][57] Warm claimed Meinert produced the film "despite the opposition of a part of the management of Decla."[48] Meinert said Pommer had "not sanctioned" the film's abstract visual style.[57] Nevertheless, Pommer claimed to have supervised Caligari, and that the film's Expressionistic style was chosen in part to differentiate it from competing Hollywood films.[39] The predominant attitude at the time was that artistic achievement led to success in exports to foreign film markets.[58] The dominance of Hollywood at the time, coupled with a period of inflation and currency devaluation, forced German film studios to seek projects that could be made inexpensively, with a combination of realistic and artistic elements so the films would both accessible to American audiences and distinctive from Hollywood films.[58][59] Pommer has claimed while Mayer and Janowitz expressed a desire for artistic experimentation in the film, his decision to use painted canvases as scenery was primarily a commercial one, as they would be a significant financial saving over building sets.[9][60]

Janowitz claims he attempted to commission the sets from designer and engraver Alfred Kubin, known for his heavy use of light and shadow to create a sense of chaos,[18][38][61] but Kubin declined to participate in the project because he was too busy.[18][56][60] In a conflicting story, however, Janowitz claimed he asked Decla requesting "Kubin paintings", and that they misread his instructions as "cubism" and hired Reimann and Röhrig as a result.[18] Film historian David Robinson argues this story was probably an embellishment stemming from Janowitz's disdain for the two artists.[56] Janowitz has claimed that he and Mayer conceived the idea of painting the sets on canvas, and that the shooting script included written directions that the scenery be designed in Kubin's style.[18][56] However, the later rediscovery of the original screenplay refutes this claim, as it includes no such directions about the sets.[56] This was also disputed in a 1926 article by Barnet Braverman that appeared in Billboard magazine, which claimed the script included no mention of an unconventional visual style, and that Janowitz and Mayer in fact strongly opposed the stylization. She claims Mayer later came to appreciate the visual style, but that Janowitz remained opposed to it years after the film's release.[57]

The set design, costumes and props took about two weeks to prepare.[62] Warm worked primarily on the sets, while Röhrig handled the painting and Reimann was responsible for the costumes.[41] Film historian David Robinson noted the costumes in Caligari seem to resemble a wide variety of time periods, For example, Dr. Caligari and the fairground workers' costumes resemble the Biedermeier era, while Jane's embody Romanticism. Additionally, Robinson wrote, Cesare's costume and those of policemen in the film appear abstract, while many of the other characters seem like ordinary German clothes from the 1920s.[63] The collaborative nature of the film's production highlights the importance that both screenwriters and set designers held in German cinema of the 1920s,[41][51] although film critic Lotte H. Eisner said sets held more importance than anything else in German films at that time.[51] The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first German Expressionist film,[23] although Brockmann and film critic Mike Budd claims it was also influenced by German Romanticism;[64][65] Budd notes the film's themes of insanity and the outcry against authority are common among German Romanticism in literature, theater and the visual arts.[65] Film scholar Vincent LoBrutto said the theater of Max Reinhardt and the artistic style of Die Brücke were additional influences on Caligari.[66]


Janowitz originally intended the part of Cesare to go to his friend, actor Ernst Deutsch.[13][67] Mayer wrote the part of Jane for Gilda Langer, but she died before she could take the role.[67] Janowitz claimed he wrote the part of Dr. Caligari specifically for Werner Krauss, who Deutsch had brought to his attention during rehearsals for a Max Reinhardt play; Janowitz said only Krauss or Paul Wegener could have played the part.[13] The parts of Dr. Caligari and Cesare ultimately went to Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, respectively, who enthusiastically took part in many aspects of the production.[41] Krauss suggested changes to his own make-up and costumes, and said he suggested the elements of a top hat, cape, and walking stick with an ivory handle for his character.[68] The actors in Caligari were conscious of the need to adapt their make-up, costumes style and appearance to match the visual style of the film.[69] Much of the acting in German silent films at the time was already Expressionistic, mimicking the pantomimic aspects of expressionist theater.[70] The performances of Krauss and Veidt in Caligari was typical of this style, as they both had experience in Expressionist-influenced theater, and as a result Barlow said they appear more comfortable in their surroundings in the film than the other actors.[71] Prior to filming, Kraus and Veidt appeared on stage in the winter of 1918 in an Expressionist drama, Reinhold Goering's Seeschlacht, at the Deutsches Theater.[69] In Caligari, Barlow notes that "Veidt moves along the wall as if it had 'exuded' him ... more a part of a material world of objects than a human one", and Krauss "moves with angular viciousness, his gestures seem broken or cracked by the obsessive force within him, a force that seems to emerge from a constant toxic state, a twisted authoritarianism of no human scruple and total insensibility".[71]

Wiene asked the actors to make movements similar to dance, most prominently from Veidt, but also from Krauss, Dagover and Friedrich Feger, who played Francis.[52] Krauss and Veidt are the only actors whose performances match the stylization of the sets, which they achieve by concentrating their movements and facial expressions.[72][73] By contrast, Dagover had little experience in Expressionist theater, and Barlow argues her acting is less harmonious with the film's visual style.[71] Most of the other actors besides Krauss and Veidt have a more naturalistic style.[72] Alan, Jane and Francis play the roles of an idyllically happy trio enjoying youth, with Alan in particular the archetype of a sensitive 19th century student.[74] Mike Budd points out realist characters in stylized settings are a common characteristic in Expressionist theater.[73] However, Robinson notes even the performances of the more naturalistic supporting roles in Caligari have Expressionist elements, like Hans-Heinz von Twardowski's "strange, tormented face" as Alan. He also cites Feher's "large angular movements," especially in the scene where he searches the deserted fairground.[68] Other minor roles are Expressionistic in nature, like two policemen who sit facing each other at their desks and move with exaggerated symmetry, and two servants who awaken and rise from their beds in perfect synchronization.[68] LoBrutto said of the acting in the film:[75]


Shooting for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began at the end of December 1919 and concluded at the end of January 1920.[62][76] It was shot entirely in a studio without any exterior shots,[77][78][79] which was unusual for films of the time, but dictated by the decision to give the film a stylized Expressionist visual style.[80] The extent to which Mayer and Janowitz participated during filming is disputed. Janowitz claims the duo repeatedly refused to allow any script changes during production, and Pommer claimed Mayer was on the set for every day of filming.[67] But Hermann Warm claimed they were never present for any of the shooting or involved in any discussions during production.[41][67]

Caligari was filmed in the Lexie-Atelier film studio at Weissensee.[76][80] It was the fourth to be made there, followed by Die Pest in Florenz (1919) and the two parts of Fritz Lang's The Spiders. The studio was built in 1913 for use with the Vitascope GmbH, and as a result was restrictive in scale; most of the sets used in the film do not exceed six meters in width and depth as a result.[80] However, an understage space was provided for use as a foreground set. Certain elements from the original script had to be cut from the film due to the limited space, including a procession of gypsies, a handcart pushed by Dr. Caligari, Jane's carriage, and a chase scene involving horse-cabs. Likewise, the script called for a fairground scene with roundabouts, barrel organs, sideshow barkers, performers and menageries, none of which could be achieved in the restrictive space. Instead, the scenes use a painting of the Holstenwall town as a background, with throngs of people walking around two spinning merry-go-round props, creating the impression of a carnival. The script also made references to modern elements like telephones, telegrams and electric light, but they were eliminated during the filming, leaving the final film's setting with no indication of a specific time period.[63]

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) used stylised intertitles.

Several scenes from the script were cut during filming, most of which were brief time lapses or transitioning scenes, or title screens deemed unnecessary. One of the more substantial scenes to be cut involved the ghost of Alan at a cemetery. The scene with the town clerk berating Dr. Caligari deviated notably from the original script, which simply called for the clerk to be "impatient". He is far more abusive in the scene as it was filmed, and is perched atop an exaggeratingly-high bench that towers over Dr. Caligari.[63] Another deviation from the script comes in scene when Dr. Caligari first awakens Cesare, one of the most famous moments in the film. The script called for Cesare to gasp and struggle for air, then shake violently and collapse in Dr. Caligari's arms. As it was filmed, there are no such physical struggling, and instead the camera zooms in on Cesare's face as he gradually opens his eyes.[81] The original title cards for ‘’Caligari’’ featured stylized, misshapen lettering with excessive underlinings, exclamation points and occasionally archaic spellings. The bizarre style, which matches that of the film as a whole, mimics the lettering of Expressionistic posters at the time.[82][83] The original title cards were tinted in green, steely-blue and brown. Many modern prints of the film do not preserve the original lettering.[83]

Photography was provided by Willy Hameister, who went on to work with Wiene on several other films.[54] The camera does not play a large part in Caligari, and is used primarily to show the sets.[28][75] The cinematography tends to alternate only between medium shots at straight-on angles and abrupt close-ups to create a sense of shock, but with few long shots or panning movement.[75][84] Likewise, there is very little interscene editing, with most scenes following the other without intercutting, giving Caligari a more theatrical feel than a cinematic one.[75] Heavy lighting is typically absent from the film, heightening the sense of darkness prevalent in the story. However, lighting is occasionally used to intensify the uneasiness created by the distortions of the sets. For example, when Cesare first awakens at the fair, a light is shone directly on a close-up of his heavily made-up face to create an unsettling glow.[85] Additionally, lighting is used in a then-innovative way to cast a shadow against the wall during the scene in which Cesare kills Alan, so the viewer sees only the shadow and not the figures themselves. Lighting techniques like this became frequently used in later German films.[86]

Themes and interpretations[edit]

Visual style[edit]

The visual style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is dark, twisted and bizarre, with radical and deliberate distortions in perspective, form, dimension and scale, creating a chaotic and unhinged appearance.[21][52] The sets are dominated by sharp-pointed forms and oblique and curving lines, with narrow and spiraling streets,[83] and structures and landscapes that lean and twist at unusual angles, giving the impression they could collapse or explode at any given moment.[21][79] Film critic Roger Ebert described it as "a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives".[1] The sets are characterized by strokes of bold, black paint.[79] Shadows and streaks of light are painted directly onto the set, further distorting the viewer's sense of perspective and three-dimensionality.[85] Buildings are clustered and interconnected in a cubist-like architecture, surrounded by dark and twisted back-alleys.[18][75][83][87] Lotte Eisner, author of The Haunted Screen, writes that objects in the film appear as if they are coming alive and "seem to vibrate with an extraordinary spirituality";[83] likewise, Expressionismus und Film writer Kurtz wrote "the dynamic force of objects howls their desire to be created".[88] The rooms have radically offset windows with distorted frames, doors that are not squared, and chairs that are too tall.[75][83][89] Strange designs and figures are painted on the walls of corridors and rooms, and trees outside have twisted branches that sometimes resemble tentacles.[89]

As German film professor Anton Kaes wrote, "The style of German Expressionism allowed the filmmakers to experiment with filmic technology and special effects and to explore the twisted realm of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and deranged fixations".[90] The visual style of Caligari conveys a sense of anxiety and terror to the viewer,[83] giving the impression of a nightmare or deranged sensibility,[21][52] or a place transformed by evil, in a more effective way than realistic locations or conventional design concepts could.[75] Siegfried Kracauer wrote hat the settings "amounted to a perfect transformation of material objects into emotional ornaments".[91] The majority of the film's story are memories recalled by an insane narrator, and as a result the distorted visual style takes on the quality of his mental breakdown,[92] giving the viewer the impression they are inside the mind of a madman.[82][93][94] As with German Expressionist paintings, the visual style of Caligari reflects an emotional reaction to world,[33] and in the case of the film's characters represents an emotional response to the terror of society that Caligari and Cesare represent.[79] Often in the film, set pieces are emblematic of the emotional state of the characters in the scene. For example, the courtyard of the insane asylum during the frame story is vastly out of proportion, with the characters seeming too big for the small building, and the courtyard floor features a bizarre pattern, all of which represent the patients' damaged frames of mind.[64] Likewise, the scene with a criminal in a prison cell features a set with long vertical painted shadows resembling arrowheads, pointing down at the squatting prisoner in an oppressive effect that symbolizes his broken down state.[95]

Brockmann argues the fact that Caligari was filmed entirely in a studio enhances the madness portrayed by the film's visuals because "there is no access to a natural world beyond the realm of the tortured human psyche".[77] The sets occasionally features circular images that reflect the chaos of the film, presenting patterns of movement that seem to be going nowhere, such as the merry-go-round at the fair, moving at a titled angle that makes it appear at risk of collapsing.[96] Other elements of the film convey the same visual motifs as the sets, including the costumes and make-up design for Caligari and Cesare, both of which are highly exaggerated and grotesque. Even the hair of the characters is an expressionistic design element, especially Cesare's black, spiky, jagged locks.[75] They are the only two characters in the film with Expressionistic make-up and costumes,[73] making them appear as if they are the only ones who truly belong in this distorted world. Despite their apparent normalcy, however, Francis and the other characters never appear disturbed by the madness around them reflected in the sets; they instead react as if they are parts of a normal background.[97]

A select few scenes disrupt the Expressionistic style of the film, such as in Jane's and Alan's home, which include normal backgrounds and bourgeois furniture that convey a sense of security and tranquility otherwise absent from the film.[92][96] Eisner called this was a "fatal" continuity error,[72] but Barlow disagrees, argued it is a common characteristic for dream narratives to have some normal elements in them, and that the normalcy Jane's house in particular could represent a feeling of comfort and refuge Francis feels in her presence.[72] Mike Budd argues while the Expressionistic visual style is jarring and off-putting at first, the characters start to blend more harmoniously as the film progresses, and the setting becomes more relegated into the background.[98]

Film historian David Robinson suggested Caligari is not a true example of Expressionism at all, but simply a conventional story with some elements of the art form applied to it. He argues the story itself is not Expressionistic, and the film could have easily been produced in a traditional style, but that Expressionist-inspired visuals were applied to it as decoration.[99] Similarly, Budd has called the film a conventional, classical narrative, resembling a detective story in Francis's search to expose Alan's killer, and said it is only the film's Expressionist settings that make the film transgressive.[100] Hans Janowitz has entertained similar thoughts as well: "Was this particular style of painting only a garment in which to dress the drama? Was it only an accident? Would it not have been possible to change this garment, without injury to the deep effect of the drama? I do not know."[101]

Authority and conformity[edit]

Caligari, like a number of Weimar films that followed it, thematizes brutal and irrational authority by making a violent and possible insane authority figure its protagonist.[64][102] Siegfried Kracauer said Dr. Caligari was symbolic of the German war government and fatal tendencies inherent in the German system, saying the character "stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values".[103] Likewise, John D. Barlow described Dr. Caligari character as an example of the tyrannical power and authority that had long plagued Germany, while Cesare represents the "common man of unconditional obedience".[4][104] Janowitz has claimed Cesare represents the common man who is conditioned to kill or be killed, just as soldiers are trained during their military service, and that Dr. Caligari is symbolic of the German government sending those soldiers off to die in the war.[58][105] The control Dr. Caligari yields over the minds and actions of others results in chaos and both moral and social perversion.[106] Cesare lacks any individuality and is simply a tool of his master; Barlow writes that he is so dependent on Caligari that he falls dead when he strays too far from the source of his sustenance, "like a machine that has run out of fuel".[71]

In From Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer argues the Caligari character is symptomatic of a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant, which he calls the German "collective soul".[40][106][107] Kracauer argues Dr. Caligari and Cesare are premonitions of Adolf Hitler and his rule over Germany, and that his control over the weak-willed, puppet-like somnabolist prefigure aspects of the mentality that allowed the Nazi Party to rise.[106][107] He calls Dr. Caligari's use of hypnotism to impose his will foreshadowing of Hitler's "manipulation of the soul".[108] Kracauer described the film as an example of Germany's obedience to authority and failure or unwillingness to rebel against deranged authority,[109] and reflects a "general retreat" of the "German soul" into a shell that occurred in post-war Germany.[110] Cesare symbolizes those who have no mind of their own and must follow the paths of others;[79] Kracauer wrote he foreshadows a German future in which "self-appointed Caligaris hypnotized innumerable Cesares into murder".[111] Barlow rejects Kracauer's claims that the film glorifies authority "just because it has not made a preachy statement against it", and said the connection between Caligari and Hitler lies in the mood the film conveys, not an endorsement of such tyrant on the film's part.[112]

Everyday reality in Caligari is dominated by tyrannical aspects, with authorities sitting atop high perches above the people they deal with, and holding offices out of sight at the end of long, forbidding stairways.[113] Most of the film's characters are caricatures who fit nearly into prescribed social roles, such as the outraged citizens chasing a public enemy, the authoritarian police who are deferential to their superiors, the oft-harassed bureaucrat town clerk, and the asylum attendants who as stereotypical "little men in white suits".[71] Only Caligari and Cesare are atypical of social roles, instead serving as, in Barlow's words, "abstractions of social fears, the incarnations of demonic forces of a nightmarish world the bourgeoisie was afraid to acknowledge, where self-assertion is pushed to willful and arbitrary power over others".[74] Kracauer wrote that the film demonstrates a contrast between the rigid control, represented by such characters as Dr. Caligari and the town clerk, and chaos, represented by the crowds of people at the fair and the seemingly never-ending spinning of the merry-go-rounds. He says the film leaves no room for middle ground between these two extremes, and that viewers are forced to embrace either insanity or authoritarian rigidity, leaving little space for human freedom.[114][115] Kracauer writes: "Caligari exposes the soul wavering between tyranny and chaos, and facing a desperate situation: any escape from tyranny seems to throw it into a state of utter confusion".[116]

Dr. Caligari is not the only symbol of arrogant authority in the film. In fact, he is a victim of harsh authority himself during the scene with the dismissive town clerk, who brushes him off and ignores him to focus on his paperwork.[64][117] Film historian Thomas Elsaesser argues that Dr. Caligari's murderous rampage through Cesare can be seen as a rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak in response to such experiences as these, even in spite of his own authoritarianism.[118] The Expressionistic set design of this scene further amplifies the power of the official and the weakness of his supplicant, with the clerk towering over the small and humiliated Caligari in an excessively high stool.[64][119] The scene represents class and status differences, and conveys the psychological experience of being simultaneously outraged and powerless in the face of a petty bureaucracy.[117] Another common visual motif is the use of stairways to illustrate the hierarchy of authority figures, such as the multiple stairs leading up to police headquarters, and three staircases ascending to Dr. Caligari in the asylum.[119]

Francis expresses a resentment of all forms of authority, particularly during the end of the frame story, when he feels he has been institutionalized because of the madness of the authorities, not because there is anything wrong with him.[120] Francis can be seen, at least within the main narrative, as a symbol of reason and enlightenment triumphing over the irrational tyrant and unmasking the absurdity of social authority.[4][60] But Kracauer, in his influential book From Caligari to Hitler, argued the frame story undermines that premise. He argues if not for the frame story, the tale of Francis's efforts against Dr. Caligari would have been a praiseworthy example of independence and rebellion against authority. However, with the addition of the frame story, which places the varsity of Francis's claims into question, Kracauer argues the film glorifies authority and turns a reactionary story into an authoritarian film:[4][38][109] "The result of these modifications was to falsify the action and to ultimately reduce it to the ravings of a madman."[22] Kracauer believed these changes were not necessarily intentional, but rather an "instinctive submission to the necessities of the screen" because commercial films had to "answer to mass desires".[38] Fritz Lang disagreed with Kracaucer's argument, and instead believes the frame story actually makes the film's revolutionary inclinations more convincing.[21] Film historian David Robinson said, as time passed, filmgoers have been less inclined to interpret the film as a vindication of authority because modern audiences have grown more skeptical of authority themselves, and are more inclined to believe Francis's story and interpret the asylum director as wrongly committing him to silence him.[121]

Point of view and perception of reality[edit]

Another major theme of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, as Brockmann writes, "the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity, and hence the destabilization of the very notion of sanity itself".[64] By the end of the film, viewers realize that the story they have been watching is being told from the perspective of an insane narrator, and therefore they cannot accept anything they have seen as reliable truth. The film's unusual visual abstractions and other stylized elements serve to show the world as one experienced by a madman.[122] Similarly, the film has been described as portraying the story as a nightmare, with the frame story being the real word.[33] Barlow said the film exemplifies a common Expressionist theme that "the ultimate perception of reality will appear distorted and insane to the healthy and practical mind".[123] The film serves as a reminder than any story told through a flashback subjectivizes the story from the perspective of the narrator.[34] At the end of the film, the asylum director gives no indication that he means Francis ill will, and in fact he seems to truly care for his patients. But Francis nevertheless believes he is being persecuted, so in the story as told from his perspective, Dr. Caligari takes on the role of persecutor.[120]

However, the Expressionistic visual elements of the film are present not only in the main narrative, but also in the epilogue and prologue scenes of frame story, which are supposed to be an objective account of reality.[33][122][93][124] For example, the frame story scenes still have tress with tentacle-like branches and a high, foreboding wall in the background. Strange leaf and line patterns are seen on the bench Francis sits upon, flame-like geometric designs can be seen on the walls, and his asylum cell has the same distorted shape as in the main narrative.[125] If the main narrative were strictly the delusions of a madman, the frame story would be completely devoid of those elements, but the fact they are present means it is unclear whether that perspective can be taken as reliable either.[33][77][125] Instead, the film offers no true normal world to oppose to that of the twisted and nightmarish world as described by Francis.[126] As a result, after the film's closing scene, it can be seen as ambiguous whether Francis or the asylum director are the insane one, or whether both are insane.[77][127][128] Likewise, the final shot of the film, with an iris fading to a close-up on the asylum director's face, further creates doubt over whether the character is truly the sane one.[128][129] As Brockmann writes, "In the end, the film is not just about one unfortunate madman; it is about an entire world that is possibly out of balance".[77] Mike Budd notes that, during the scene in which asylum doctors restrain Francis, his movement closely mimic those when Dr. Caligari is restrained in a similar scene during the main story. Budd says this suggests a "dream logic of repetition" which throws further confusion on which perspective is reality.[128]

Double life[edit]

Duality is another common theme in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dr. Caligari is portrayed in the main narrative as an insane tyrant, and in the frame story as a respected authority and director of a mental institution. As a result of this duality, the viewer cannot help but suspect a malevolent aspect to him at the conclusion of the film, even despite all evidence indicating he is a kind and caring man.[96] Even within the main narrative alone, the Dr. Caligari lives a double life: holding a respectable position as the asylum director, but becoming a hypnotist and murderer at night.[130] Additionally, the character is actual a double of the "real" Dr. Caligari, an 18th-century mad scientist that the film character becomes so obsessed with that he desires to penetrate his innermost secrets and "become Caligari".[131] Francis also takes on a double life of sorts, serving as the heroic protagonist in the main narrative and a patient in a mental institution in the frame story. Kaes described the story Francis tells as an act of transference with his psychiatrist, as well as a projection of his feels that he is a victim under the spell of the all-powerful asylum director, just as Cesare is the hypnotized victim of Dr. Caligari.[131] The Cesare character serves as both a persecutor and a victim, as he is both a murderer and the unwilling slave of an oppressive master,[96][117]

Siegfried Kracauer said by coupling a fantasy in which Francis overthrows a tyrannical authority, with a reality in which authority triumphs over Francis, Caligari reflects a double aspect of German life, suggesting they reconsider their traditional belief in authority even as they embrace it.[38] A contrast between levels of reality exist not only in the characterizations, but in the presentation of some of the scenes as well.[132] This, as Barlow writes, "reveals a contast between external calm and internal chaos".[132] For example, flashback scenes when Francis reads Dr. Caligari's diary, in which the doctor is show growing obsessed with learning hypnotic powers, take place as Dr. Caligari is sleeping peacefully in the present. Another example are the scenes at the fair, which on the surface appear to represent fun and escapism, but reveal a lurking sense of chaos and disaster in the form of Dr. Caligari and Cesare.[132] The visual elements of the film also convey a sense of duality, particularly in the contrasts between black and white. This is particularly prevalent in the sets, where black shadows are set against white walls, but also in other elements like the costumes and make-up. For instance, Dr. Caligari wears mostly black, but white streaks are present in his hair and on his gloves. Cesare's face is a ghostly white, but the darks of his eyes are heavily outlined in black. Likewise, Jane's white face contrasts with her deep, dark eyes.[96]

Reflection on post-war Germany[edit]

Critics have suggested The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari highlights some of the neuroses prevalent in the Germany and the Weimar Republic when the film was made,[112][133] particularly in the shadow of World War I,[134] at a time when extremism was rampant, reactionaries still controlled German institutions, and citizens fears the negative impact the Treaty of Versailles would have on the economy.[112] Kracauer wrote that the paranoia and fear portrayed in the film was a sign of things to come in Germany,[38][133] and that the film reflected a German tendency to "retreat into themselves" and away from political engagement following the war.[38][79] LoBrutto wrote that the film can be seen as a social or political analogy of "the moral and physical breakdown of Germany at the time, with a madman on the loose wreaking havoc on a distorted and off-balanced society, a metaphor for a country in chaos".[79]

Kaes, who called Caligari "an aggressive statement about war psychiatry, murder and deception", wrote that Alan's question to Cesare, "How long have I to live?" reflected the trauma German citizens experienced during the war, as that question was often on the minds of soldiers in the war, and family members back home concerned about their loved ones in the military. Francis's despair after Alan's murder can likewise be compared to the many soldiers who survived the war, but saw their friends die on the battlefield. Kaes noted other parallels between the film and war experiences, noting that Cesare attacked Alan at dawn, a common time for attacks during the war.[135] Elsaesser called Caligari an "outstanding example of how 'fantastic' representations in German films from the early 1920s seem to bear the imprint of pressures from eternal events, to which they refer only through the violence with which they disguise and disfigure them."[117]


Though often considered an art film by modern audiences, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was produced and marketed the same as a normal commercial production of its time period, able to target both the elite market for at as well as a more commercial horror genre audience.[136][137] The film was marketed extensively leading up to the release, with advertisements running even before the film was finished. Many posters and newspaper advertisements included the enigmatic phrase featured in the film, "Du must Caligari warden!", or "You must become Caligari!"[138][139] Caligari premiered at the Marmorhaus movie theater in Berlin on February 26, 1920, less than one month after it was completed.[138] The filmmakers were so nervous about the release that Erich Pommer, on his way to the theater, reportedly exclaimed, "It will be a horrible failure for all of us!"[140] As with the making of the film, several urban legend surrounding the film's premiere.[138] One, offered by writers Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel in The German Cinema, suggest the film was shelved "for lack of a suitable outlet", and only shown at Marmorhaus because another film had fallen through.[141] Another suggested the theater pulled the film after only two performances because audiences demanded refunds and demonstrated against it so strongly that the theater pulled it after only two performances. This story was told by Erich Pommer, who claimed the Marmorhaus picked Caligari back up and ran it successfully for three months after he spent six months working on a publicity campaign for the film. David Robinson wrote that neither of these urban legends were true, and that the latter was fabricated by Pommer to increase his own reputation.[138] On the contrary, Robinson said the premiere was highly successful, showing at the theater for four weeks, an unusual amount for the time, and then returning two weeks later. He said it was so well received that women in the audience screamed when Cesare opened his eyes during his first scene, and fainted during the scene when Cesare abducted Jane.[140]

Caligari was released at a time when foreign film industries had just started easing restrictions on the import of German films following World War I.[136] The film was acquired for American distribution by the Goldwyn Distributing Company, and had its American premiere at the Capitol Theatre on April 3, 1921.[142] It was given a live theatrical prologue and epilogue,[61][143] which was not unusual for film premieres at major theaters at the time. In the prologue, the film is introduced by a character called "Cranford", who identifies himself as the man Francis speaks with in the opening scene. In the epilogue, Cranford returns and exclaims that Francis has fully recovered from his madness.[143] Mike Budd believes these additions simplified the film and "adjusted [it] for mass consumption",[144] though Robinson argued it was simply a normal theatrical novelty for the time.[145] Capitol Theatre runner Samuel Roxy Rothafel commissioned conductor Ernö Rapée to compile a musical accompaniment that included portions of songs by composers Johann Strauss III, Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Rotafel wanted the score to match the dark mood of the film, saying: "The music had, as it were, to be made eligible for citizenship in a nightmare country".[146]

Caligari had its Los Angeles premiere at Miller's Theater on May 7, 1921, but the theater was forced to pull it due to demonstrations by protestors. However, the protest was organized by the Hollywood branch of the American Legion due to fears of unemployment stemming from the import of German films into America, not over objections to the content of Caligari itself.[147] After running in large commercial theaters, Caligari began to be shown in smaller theaters and film societies in major cities.[148] Box office figures were not regularly published in the 1920s, so it has been difficult to assess the commercial success or failure of Caligari in the United States. Film historians Kristin Thompson and David B. Pratt separately studied trade publications from the time in an attempt to make a determination, but reached conflicting findings, with Thompson concluding it was a box office success and Pratt concluding it was a failure. However, both agreed it was more commercially successful in major cities than in theaters from smaller communities, where tastes were considered more conservative.[149]

Caligari did not immediately receive a wide distribution in France due to fears over the import of German films, but film director Louis Delluc organized a single screening of it on November 14, 1921, at the Colisée cinema in Paris as part of a benefit performance for the Spanish Red Cross. Afterward, the Cosmograph company bought the film's distribution rights and premiered it at the Ciné-Opéra on March 2, 1922.[147]


Critical response[edit]

There are differing accounts as to how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was first received by audiences and critics immediately after its release. Brockmann, Kaes and film theorist Kristin Thompson say it was popular with both the general public and well-respected by critics.[107][150][151] Robinson wrote, "The German critics, almost without exception, ranged from favourable to ecstatic".[140] Kracauer said critics were "unanimous in praising Caligari as the first work of art on the screen",[139] but also said it was "too high-brow to become popular in Germany".[152] Barlow said it was often the subject of critical disapproval, which he believes is because early film reviewers attempted to assign fixed definitions to the young art of cinema, and thus had accepting the bizarre and unusual elements of Caligari.[23] Some critics felt it imitated a stage production too closely.[153] Other commentators, like critic Herbert Jhering and novelist Blaise Cendrars, objected to the presentation of the story as a madman's delusion because they felt it belittled Expressionism as an artform.[121] Theater critic Helmut Grosse condemned the film's visual design as clichéd and derivative, calling it a "cartoon and (a) reproduction of designs rather than from what actually took place on stage".[154] Several reviewers, like Kurt Tucholsky of and Blaise Cendrars, and criticized the use of real actors in front of artificially-painted sets, saying it created an inconsistent level of stylization. Critic Herbert Ihering echoed this point in a 1920 review: "If actors are acting without energy and are playing within landscapes and rooms which are formally 'excessive', the continuity of the principle is missing".[155]

While Robinson said the response from American critics was largely positive and enthusiastic,[156] Kaes said American critics and audiences were divided, with some praising its artistic value and others, particularly those distrustful of Germany following World War I, wishing to ban it altogether.[150] Some in the Hollywood film industry felt threatened by the potential rivalry and spoke out against Caligari's release, condemning it as a "foreign invasion".[150] Nevertheless, the film remained popular in the United States.[23] Several American reviewers compared it to an Edgar Allan Poe story,[156] including a 1921 review in Variety magazine, which praised the direction and "perfect tempo" of the film, as well as the sets that "squeeze and turn and adjust the eye, and through the eye the mentality".[145] A New York Times review likened it to modernist art, comparing the film's sets to Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and said the film "gives dimensions and meaning to shape, making it an active part of the story, instead of merely the conventional and inert background", which was key to the film's "importance as a work of cinematography".[157] Albert Lewin, a critic who eventually became a film director and screenwriter, called Caligari "the only serious picture, exhibited in America so far, that in anything like the same degree has the authentic thrills and shock of art".[156] A story in a November 1921 edition of Exceptional Photoplays, an independent publication issued by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, said it "occupies the position of unique artistic merit", and said American films in comparison looked like they were made for "a group of defective adults at the nine-year-old level".[158]

Caligari was a critical success in France, but French filmmakers were divided in their opinions after its release. Abel Gance called it "superb" and wrote, "What a lesson to all directors!"[159] and René Clair said "overthrew the realist dogma" of filmmaking.[160] Film critic and director Louis Delluc said the film has compelling rhythm: "At first slow, deliberately laborious, it attempts to irritate. Then when the zigzag motifs of the fairground start turning, the pace leaps forward, agitato, accelerando, and only leaves off at the word 'End', as abruptly as a slap in the face."[161] Jean Epstein, however, called it "a prize example of the abuse of décor in the cinema" and said it "represents a grave sickness of cinema".[159] Likewise, Jean Cocteau called it "the first step towards a grave error which consists of flat photographic of eccentric decors, instead of obtaining surprised by means of the camera".[162] French critic Frédéric-Philippe Amiguet wrote of the film: "It has the odor of tainted food. It leaves a taste of cinders in the mouth."[163] The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein especially disliked Caligari, calling it a "combination of silent hysteria, particoloured canvases, daubed flats, painted faces, and the unnatural broken gestures and action of monstrous chimaeras".[164]

While early reviews were more divided, modern film critics and historians have largely praised Caligari as a revolutionary film. Film critic Roger Ebert called it arguably "the first true horror film".[1] In October 1958, Caligari was selected as one of the 12 best films of all time during a poll organized at the Brussels World’s Fair. With input from 117 film critics, filmmakers and historians from around the world, it was the first universal film poll in history.[165][166] American film historian Lewis Jacobs said "its stylized rendition, brooding quality, lack of explanation, and distorted settings were new to the film world".[167] Film historian and critic Paul Rotha wrote of it, "For the first time in the history of the cinema, the director has worked through the camera and broken with realism on the screen; that a film could be effective dramatically when not photographic and finally, of the greatest possible importance, that the mind of the audience was brought into play psychologically".[168] Caligari ranked 12th in a poll of the greatest films of all time organized at the Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Brussels in 1958, in which 120 international film critics participated.[169] Entertainment Weekly included Caligari in their 1994 "Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made", calling it a "landmark silent film" and saying, "No other film's art direction has ever come up with so original a visualization of dementia".[170] It holds a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 48 reviews.[171][172]


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, and by far the most famous and well-regarded example of it.[23][107][110][126][156][173] It is considered a classic film, often shown in introductory film courses, film societies and museums,[102] and is one of the most famous German films from the silent era.[23] Film scholar Lewis Jacobs called it "most widely-discussed film of the time".[119] Caligari helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema,[45][107][150] while also bringing legitimacy to the cinema among literary intellectuals within Germany itself.[137] Lotte Eisner has said it was in Expressionism, as epitomized in Caligari, that "the German cinema found its true nature."[107] The term "caligarism" was coined as a result, referring to a style of similar films that focus on such themes as bizarre madness and obsession, particularly through the use of visual distortion.[23] Expressionism was late in coming to cinema, and by the time Caligari was released, many German critics felt the art form had become commercialized and trivialized;[174][175][176][177] such well known writers as Kasimir Edschmid, René Schickele, and Yvan Goll had already pronounced the Expressionist movement dead by the time Caligari arrived in theaters.[175] Few other purely Expressionistic films were produced, and Caligari was the only one readily accessible for several decades.[45][178] Among the few films to fully embrace the Expressionist style were Genuine (1920) and Raskolnikow (1923), both directed by Wiene, as well as From Morn to Midnight (1920), Torgus (1921), Das Haus zum Mond (1921), Haus ohne Tür und ohne Fenster (1921) and Waxworks.[162][179]

While few other purely Expressionistic movies were made, Caligari still had a major influence over other German directors,[180] and many of the film's Expressionist elements – particularly the use of setting, lighting shadow and shadow to represent the dark psychology of its characters – became prevelent in German cinema.[152][169] Among the films to use these elements were Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924),[107][181] G. W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul (1926),[45] and Lang's Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).[179][181] The success of Caligari also effected the way in which German films were produced during the 1920s. For example, the majority of major German films over the next few years moved away from location shooting and were fully filmed in studios,[116][169] which assigned much more importance to designers in German cinema.[169] Robinson argues this led to the rise of a large amount of film designers – such as Hans Dreier, Rochus Gliese, Albin Grau, Otto Hunte Alfred Junge, Erich Kettelhut and Paul Leni – and that impact was felt abroad as many of these talents later emigrated from Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party.[169] Additionally, the success of Caligari's collaborative effort – including Caligari's director, set designers and actors – influenced subsequent film production in Germany for many years making teamwork a hallmark of German cinema in the Weimar Republic.[41]

The impact of Caligari was felt not just in German cinema, but internationally as well.[173][178][182] Both Rotha and film historian William K. Everson wrote that the film probably had as much of a long-term effect on Hollywood directors as Battleship Potemkin (1928).[183] In his book The Film Til Now, Rotha wrote that Caligari and Potemkin were the "two most momentous advances in the development of the cinema", and said Caligari "served to attract to the cinema audience many people who had hitherto regarded the film as the low watermark of intelligence".[168] Caligari had an impact on the style and content of Hollywood films in the 1920s and early 1930s,[180][184] particularly in such as The Bells (1926), The Man Who Laughs (1928), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932),[90][183] and had a major influence on American horror films of the 1930s, some of which featured an antagonist using Caligari-like supernatural abilities to control others, such as Dracula (1931), Svengali (1931) and The Mad Genius (1931).[185] Kaes said both Caligari's stylistic elements, and the Cesare character in particular, influenced the Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s, which often prominently featured some sort of monster, such as Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935).[90] The Expressionism of Caligari also influenced American avant-garde film, particularly those that used fantastic settings to illustrate an inhuman environment overpowering an individual. Early examples include The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), The Last Moment (1928) and The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra (1928).[186] LoBrutto wrote, "Few films throughout motion picture history have had more influence on the avant-garde, art, and student cinema than Caligari".[173]

Caligari and German Expressionism heavily influenced the American film noir period of the 1940s and 50s, both in visual style and narrative tone.[150][187][188] Noir films tended to portray everyone, even the innocent, as the object of suspicion, a common thread in Caligari. The genre also employs several Expressionistic elements in its dark and shadowy visual style, stylized and abstract photography, distorted and expressive make-up and acting.[90] Caligari also influenced films produced under the Soviet Union, such as Aelita (1924), and The Overcoat.[189] Observers have noted the black and white films of Ingmar Bergman bear a resemblance to the German films of the 1920s, and film historian Roy Armes has called him as "the true heir of Caligari". Bergman himself, however, has downplayed the influence of German Expressionism on his work.[190] Caligari has also had an impact on stage theater. Siegfried Kracauer wrote that the film's use of the iris-in has been mimicked in theatrical productions, with lighting used to single out a lone actor.[153]

Caligari continues to be one of the most discussed and debated films from the Weimar Republic.[54] Two major books have played a large part in shaping the perception of the film and its impact on cinema as a whole: Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler (1947) and Lotte Eisner's The Haunted Screen (1974).[102][110][191] From Caligari to Hitler based its claims about the film largely on an unpublished typescript Caligari: The Story of a Famous Story, by Hans Janowitz,[19] which gave Janowitz's and Carl Mayer principal credit for the making of Caligari.[18][192][193] Mike Budd wrote of Kracauer's book: "Perhaps no film or period has been so thoroughly understood through a particular interpretation as has Caligari, and Weimer cinema generally, through Kracauer's social-psychological approach".[194] Prior to the publication of From Caligari to Hitler, few critics had derived any symbolic political meaning from the film, but Kracauer’s argument that it symbolized German obedience toward authority and a premonition of the rise of Adolf Hitler (See Themes/Conformity for more) drastically changed attitudes about Caligari. Many of his interpretations of the film are still embraced,[20][22][191][194] even by those who have strongly disagreed with his general premise,[20][194] and even as certain claims Kracauer made have been disproven, such as his statement that the original script included no frame story.[191] (See Writing for more) Eisner's book placed Caligari into a historical context by identifying Expressionist features in other 1920s films that the movie influenced.[110][191]

Film historian David Robinson claimed Wiene, despite being the director of Caligari, is often given the least amount of credit for its production.[62] He believes this is in part because Wiene died in 1938, closer to the release of the film than any other major collaborators, and was therefore unable to defend his involvement in the work while others took credit.[42] In fact, Robinson argues Caligari ultimately hurt Wiene's reputation because his subsequent films did not match its success, so he is often wrongly considered "a one-film director who had a lucky fluke with Caligari".[62]

Sequels, remakes and musical works[edit]

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to produce sequels and remakes in the decades following The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's release. Robert Wiene bought the rights to Caligari from Universum Film AG in 1934 with the intention of filming a sound remake, which never materialized before Wiene's death in 1938. He intended to cast Jean Cocteau as Cesare, and a script, believed to be written by Wiene, indicated the Expressionist style would have been replaced with a French surrealist style.[195] In 1944, Erich Pommer and Hans Janowitz each separately attempted to obtain the legal rights of the film, with hopes of making Hollywood remake.[61][196] Pommer attempted to argue he had a better claim to the rights because the primary value of the original film came not from the writing, but "in the revolutionary way the picture was produced".[197] However, both Janowitz and Pommer ran into complications related to the invalidity of Nazi law in the United States, and uncertainty over the legal rights of sound and silent films.[61][196] Janowitz wrote a treatment for a remake, and in January 1945 was offered a minimum guarantee of $16,000 against five percent royalties for his rights to the original film for a sequel to be directed by Fritz Lang, but the project never came to fruition.[196][198] Later, Janowitz planned a sequel called Caligari II, and unsuccessfully attempted to sell the property to a Hollywood producer for $30,000.[198]

Around 1947, Hollywood agent Paul Kohner and German filmmaker Ernst Matray also planned a Caligari sequel, with Matray and his wife Maria Solveg writing a screenplay called The Return of Caligari.[198] That script would have reimagined Dr. Caligari as a former Nazi officer and war criminal, but the film was never produced.[196][198] In 1960, independent Hollywood producer Robert Lippert acquired the rights to Caligari from Matray and Universum Film AG for $50,000, and produced a film called The Cabinet of Caligari, which was released in 1962.[198] Screenwriter Robert Bloch did not intend to write a Caligari remake, and in fact the title was forced upon his untitled screenplay by director Roger Kay.[199] The film had few similarities to the original Caligari except for its title and a plot twist at the end,[196][200] in which it is revealed the film was simply the delusion of the protagonist, who believed she was being held captive by a character named Caligari. Instead, he was her psychiatrist, and he cures her at the end of the film.[196] 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).[201]

A quasi-sequel, called Dr. Caligari, was released in 1989,[202] directed by Stephen Sayadian and starring Madeleine Reynal as the granddaughter of the original Dr. Caligari, now running an asylum and performing bizarre hormonal experiments on its patients. The sex-driven story ultimately have little in common with the original film.[199][203] In 1992, theatre director Peter Sellars release his only feature film, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, an experimental film loosely based on Caligari. However, the storyline was created as the film was being made, so it has little in common with the original film.[204][205] The film was screened only at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and never theatrically released.[206] 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.[207] 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.[208] In 2000, the Israeli Electronica group TaaPet made several live performances of their soundtrack for the film around Israel.[209]

An independent film remake of Caligari edited, written and directed by David Lee Fisher was released in 2005, in which new actors were placed in front of the actual backdrops from the original film. The actors performed in front of a green screen, then their performances were superimposed in front of matte shots based on the original sets. Doug Jones played the role of Cesare.[210][211][212] 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.[213]



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External links[edit]