Francis tells in flashback the story of how he and his friend, Alan, had competed for the love of Jane. He recounts the way in which he and Alan saw Dr Caligari and the somnambulist, Cesare, at a carnival in Holstenwall and how Cesare accurately predicted Alan’s brutal death. In the story Francis tells, we then see Cesare being sent by Caligari to kill Jane. But Cesare is overcome by her beauty and carries her off pursued by the people of the town. Still in flashback, at a nearby asylum Francis finds that the doctor in charge is none other than Caligari, who has been responsible for a series of murders. Finally, in a twist, the extended flashback ends and we find Francis is a patient in an asylum run by a doctor who looks like Caligari.
Watching The Cabinet of Dr Caligari the audience, confined in the world of someone classified as insane, sees what the madman sees: distorted perspectives, eerie lights and shadows, an angular world of fears and apprehension. Expressionist sets are employed in order to convey the asylum patient’s thoughts, intensify the emotions of the characters, and emphasise potential psychological depths behind the action. Holstenwall is a bizarre, nightmare-like place, filled with jagged roads, buildings with pointed rooftops, misshapen windows and doors, and drapes that appear to hang above characters as barely concealed threats. The whole town seems about to fall in on itself and engulf the residents.1
Made at an early point in film history Caligari can be seen as an attempt to release mainstream cinema from any need to be involved in the straightforward recreation of reality. In its use of staged settings and in the performance of the actors this film purposely tries to present a look that is alien and unreal, to create a psychological state rather than a physical reality and, perhaps, in doing so to suggest that the ‘real’ underlying nature of the world is just such a place of fear and dark forces. The filmmakers are, therefore, both questioning the nature of reality and through example suggesting film is a medium that can do things other than simply offering the photographic representation of life. In doing this they raise the issue of what film should be used for, and contribute towards extending the scope of filmic possibilities.
The fact that the film was stylistically ‘different’ may have helped it to receive a distribution outside of Germany, and in the process may have assisted other German films from the period to access outside markets. In 1919 German filmmakers were inevitably finding it difficult to arrange distribution of their films in some European markets; the First World War had only just ended and both French and British exhibitors were refusing to show German films. However, French film enthusiasts, intrigued by its challenging style and content, acquired prints of Caligari and held their own screenings. Eventually, demand for the film was such that the French government lifted its ban and Caligari opened in France in 1922.
Some of its appeal may have been in the fact that it was one of the first horror films. As such it set some of the plot conventions that would be used and reused in coming decades: the evil doctor, or mad scientist, who commits murder through a ‘monster’ who he controls; the mysterious carnival with freakish, peep-show characters that comes to a town bringing terror; the monster who falls in love with a beautiful, innocent young girl; and angry townspeople who chase the monster out of their community. Of course, in a wider cultural context each of these features of the story is nothing new, having deep roots in the oral tradition of folk tales found across Europe.
The original script from Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, without the framing device of Francis telling the story as an inmate of an asylum, amounted to a bleak, pessimistic view of post-war German society. Caligari was evil incarnate and authority was duplicitous, manipulative and, ultimately, murderous. It was their suggestion that settings for the film should be created from bizarrely painted canvases, and the production company then hired Expressionist designers Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann to create the sets.
Twisted shapes, sharp angles, and a conscious avoiding of verticals and horizontals characterise both the exterior and interior sets. But it is not just the sets that are painted in the fantastical style of Expressionism, the costumes, furniture, and even the performances of the actors are integrated into the whole. Both Werner Krauss (Caligari) and Conrad Veidt (Cesare) move in distinctive ways, suggesting they are part of this strange world. Veidt has a tall, thin, angular body and moves slowly, almost gliding along the walls, while Krauss is hunched and moves in short, sharp steps accentuated by the use of a cane. Repeated use is also made of the penetrating, staring eyes of both actors. Heavy make-up, in particular on Veidt’s face, emphasises the eyes and creates the appearance of something like a mask.
It may be that the framing story, that makes the whole story seem to emerge out of the mind of a patient in an asylum, was only added when the film was in production.2 This makes the film ‘safe’. The audience is allowed to escape the film’s insane world because in the end it turns out to be the harmless vision of someone who is mad, and not a nightmarish reality. And as a result, the filmmakers are able to position themselves so that they are not quite so directly and obviously critical of German society. From this perspective the sets are simply used to convey the thoughts of Francis and to lay bare this character’s emotions. The framing of the central story by the episodes in the asylum becomes reassuring; order has been restored in the sense that the murders and the accompanying evil were all simply figments of the imagination of a madman. Yet, the film does still manage to end on a disturbing note: the final shot of Krauss’s face is ambiguous and open to interpretation, perhaps Francis was right all along and the doctor is Caligari.
It would be possible to put forward a scenario suggesting that not only those who are murdered, but also Cesare and Francis himself, are victims of Caligari. From this perspective Caligari is seen first, as manipulating Cesare to carry out his wishes3 and then, second, in his role as director of the asylum, as having Francis totally within his power at the end. Frustratingly for Francis, if we take this viewpoint he alone knows who is responsible for the murders taking place in the world but is powerless to expose the villain; and, disturbingly for us as an audience, the character with the role of hero is unable to defeat evil and restore order. If we do take Francis as the hero and see the close-up of the director’s face towards the end as the triumph of evil, then the film as a story has not performed its ritualistic taming of the horrors of the world, the restoration of the world as a place of safety has not been achieved.
In this reading, Caligari becomes an embodiment of evil and the film takes on added symbolic power in its ability to talk about the nature of evil within the wider world. In From Caligari to Hitler, the film critic Siegfried Kracauer4 suggested films from this period had been able to project forward from the contemporary state of Germany in the 1920s to foretell something of the monstrous nature of events that would unfold in the 1930s and early 1940s. Perhaps more obviously, it is important to remember that when The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was made the First World War, and the horror of the trenches on the Western Front and starvation at home, had only just ended; and in a powerfully real sense this recent past was still visibly present on an everyday basis in the shape of the physically and psychologically maimed casualties to be found on the streets of German towns and cities. Asylums were full of people who continued to ‘live’ the full horrors of what human beings were able to inflict on each other.
Undeniably, ideas of death and the bringing of death are at the heart of this film as they are at the centre of other films from the period in Germany, such as Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens/Nosferatu, the Vampire (F. W. Murnau, 1922). Once we have taken in the dark aspects of Caligari we can no longer avoid seeing the simple ‘cabinet’ of the title as in fact a threatening, if not frightening, image of a coffin, and this may be particularly so if we are aware of the way in which this same image is also used and re-used in Nosferatu. 5
Logically, with an entranced Jane wandering through the opening scene in Caligari and Cesare standing in the asylum at the end, the main story has to be seen as arising from within Francis’s crazed imagination. Such aspects of the film are clearly a difficulty for any reading that tends towards attaching insanity to the character of Caligari rather than Francis; and yet, it is not always the most reasoned account of events that we take away with us from a film. The power of some of the central images involving Caligari and Cesare as a fairground attraction (along with already mentioned the final image of Caligari looking into the camera in closeup in his role as director of the asylum) live on in our minds in such a way as to imaginatively carry forward the original concept of the writers, Janowitz and Mayer, to present an examination of all-powerful authority as essentially evil.
Interestingly, the stylistic use of visual distortions continues into the final scenes within the asylum. And this clearly raises further questions about how we should interpret the whole film since, even as we realise we have been hearing the story of a (supposed?) madman, we are still being presented with a vision of the world, and therefore seeing the world, as a nightmarish reality. Furthermore, we are also implicated in the labyrinth of possibilities at an additional level. Because of the way in which if we identify ourselves with the listener in the opening scene, by the end we find we have been identifying with a person who is insane. We too are in the asylum where we have been listening to a story told by an inmate. Does that mean we too are an inmate of this madhouse? Does this mean we too are insane or, worse, sane but trapped within the insanity of the asylum? And does the asylum then become a metaphor for the world at large?
1. The Expressionist movement had an impact in particular on art and the theatre in Europe and perhaps especially in Germany during the early twentieth century. Expressionism aimed to give a subjective view of the world, expressing emotions and feelings rather than presenting an objective view of reality. In theatre, the effort was to use stylised staging and symbolic lighting effects to increase the emotional impact of the work on the audience. The dark cynicism of the new phase of German Expressionism in art that began after the First World War, Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity), and can be seen in the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz, might also be relevant here. In the work of these artists the subject is often rendered as a distorted caricature.
2. We open with Francis about to tell his story to an inmate in an asylum and close with him still confined within the asylum surrounded by characters resembling figures from his dark imaginings.
3. Cesare, we might note, is not only put into a state where he will not question orders but is also trained to kill to order.
4. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2004.
5. There is, for example, an image of Orlok (Max Schreck) entering Hutter’s (Gustav von Wangenheim) room in the middle of the night in which the door opens like the lid of a coffin.
Cast and Crew:
Country: Germany. Production Company: DeclaBioscop AG. Director: Robert Wiene (and Friedrich Feher). Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer. Art designers: Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann. Cinematography: Willy Hameister. Cast: Werner Krauss (Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Lil Dagover (Jane), Feher (Francis), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Alan).]
Stephen Brockman, A Critical History of German Film, Rochester, NY, Camden House, 2010, pp. 59–69.
Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg, Beyond Caligari: the Films of Robert Wiene, New York, Berghahn Books, 1999.
Anton Kaes, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: Expressionism and Cinema’ in Ted Perry (ed.), Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2006, pp. 41–59. David Robinson, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, London, BFI, 1997.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.