The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari – Robert Wiene (1920) | Movie Review

Movie poster of Caligari – Atelier Ledl Bernhard [PD], via Wikimedia Commons
Movie poster – Atelier Ledl Bernhard [PD], via Wikimedia Commons

Originally published on this site here, in Italian.

Original title: Das Cabinet Des Doktor Caligari

Year: 1920

Produced by: Decla-Bioscop AG

Directed by: Robert Wiene

Written by: Hans Janowitz; Carl Mayer

Cinematography: Willy Hameister

Music by: Giuseppe Becce

Running time: approximately 77 minutes (2014 restoration by L’Immagine Ritrovata – Cineteca di Bologna)

Budget: estimated 18.000 $ (source: IMDB)

Receipt: N/A



February 26th, 1920: the première of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is held in Berlin, and it’s going to be a crucial day for German Cinema and more.

Caligari is indeed a very particular movie: it’s the first expressionist film.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Photography is at the service of the entire social system: it portrays the rulers, the soldiers at the front, the families in their intimacy with what appears to be an amazing realism.

But while Photography (as well as pictorial Impressionism) impressed reality as it appeared, Expressionism intended to show its hidden, secret side.

To achieve this purpose, Expressionism had one single way: to change the apparent reality and show what were the true faces of society and individuals, their thoughts, their ambitions, their moods.

In 1920 Expressionism is an already established pictorial current, and has already influenced Cinema. In fact, even before Caligari we can find some traces of expressionism in movies, for example in The Student of Prague (1913)1 and, perhaps, in The Golem (1915), now partially lost.

But, in fact, those were mere traces.

In 1920, things change completely.

We are at the end of the Great War: Germany came out shocked. The economic crisis, the fallen, the physical and mental invalids are the price of the whims of domination of what had been the greatest industrial power in Europe. The conditions of peace are a halter, communist revolts are repressed in blood, the Republic has just arisen from the ashes of an Empire fallen into shame because of the Kaiser’s escape to the Netherlands.

In this context, Cinema is strangely a quite thriving industry. For years in fact, due to the embargoes, Germany has independently produced its own movies. And this isolation, rather than damaging German film industry and art, has made them an example of efficiency and creativity.

And when the production of Caligari begins, at the end of 1919, the circumstances are ripe for a great movie.

The plot is simple, although built with a concentric structure and rich in political and social references.

A fair is held in the town of Holstenwall. A barker, Dr. Caligari, invites passers-by to see the sleepwalker Cesare, who, he says, “has been sleeping for 23 years” and would be able to foresee the future. Two locals and the girlfriend of one of them will be involved in a series of murders.

All of this is actually the result of a story that the main character Francis tells to a bench neighbor in what appears to be a public park: the looks are vacant or fixed, the acting is apathetic, the toning is in a blue/green/sepia cold and detached, ethereal. Lil Dagover, who plays Jane, Francis’s girlfriend, walks around like a ghost.

In the story told by the young man, on the other hand, everything is distorted and, it would seem, full of a macabre life: the acting is charged to the maximum; the interiors are deformed like in a nightmare and so are the shadows and the lights; situations are more like a delirious dream than anything else.

And that’s the heart of the movie. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represents a waking nightmare, a fleeting glimpse into another dimension, or perhaps in the future of Germany, or even into the reality of events coeval with the film, and it’s not by chance that there are legends and coincidences surrounding the film of an aura of mystery.

Here is one of these coincidences. Dr. Caligari is a manipulator, who treats Cesare like a puppet, and is pervaded by impulses for domination, possession and murder; he is a good liar, he manages to evade police investigations, and he is even the director of an asylum. A small dictator, theatrical and tyrannical. Werner Krauss, who plays Doctor Caligari in the film, will later find himself to be a State Actor under Nazism and, for his collaboration with the regime, will be sentenced to a fine after WWII.

A legend is instead that for which the story that frames the events of Holstenwall would be an addition wanted by the production. In fact, after the fall of Nazism it was written2, taking up previous stories, that there would have existed a first version of the script, later modified by Decla, which would have taken place just within the town, ending with the hospitalization of Dr. Caligari.

In this “phantom” version, in short, the prologue and the final part of the film were missing, with the consequence that the filmic reality was much closer to the one outside the film: The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari was thus an allegory of the coming, still latent Nazism (latent but not too much: extreme right-wing groups such as the Freikorps were already present in Germany since the end of the war; the Rathenau assassination was committed in 1922, much before Hitler’s rise to power, and from subjects in various ways linked to the aforementioned organization).

In this version of the script, Dr. Caligari thus became the symbol of a government that misled its people, and Cesare that people stunned, asleep, anesthetized.

Today this story seems to be just a legend artificially created, perhaps for profit, perhaps to reinforce the need to protect the two writers in the United States, perhaps to discredit Nazism on a cultural level in a period of strong propaganda in every sector, including (and at the forefront) Cinema. There is no precise answer. We must also say, to tell the truth, that the editing could indeed be misleading, and that a political reading of the film remains possible.

Not that Hitler loved Expressionism, for his part: it is known that Nazism considered Expressionism (and modern art in general) “degenerate art“.

Technically, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is a basically perfect film.

The actors are phenomenal (Conrad Veidt is at his consecration, Krauss is in the role of his life). The shots are the recording of a nightmare on film. The scenography is not of this world: we have chairs with very high backs, boxes in which “circus freaks” sleep, roofs and streets reconstructed in the studios.

We might think that the scenographers did things randomly, just to shock the viewer. A detail clearly tells us that this is not the case.

When Caligari arrives in the town, he must (very realistically) ask the Municipality the permit to occupy the public land and carry out his activity in the village fair. He then goes to the competent office, where the employee treats him as a nothing.

And to better represent the gap between the user of the public service and the employee, as well as the arrogance of the latter, it was decided to make him sit on a very high bench, which could look demented, but which also provides a clear, immediate perception of the relationships of strength between Caligari and a simple employee.

In short, even a tyrant like Caligari finds himself comically having to bow his head in front of the still very efficient German bureaucracy. Later he will have the clerk killed by Cesare, but for now he has lost a battle.

We understand, in short, that both in scriptwriting and in set design things have been done with a purpose and precise canons: the case has nothing to do with it.

Even cinematography is completely functional to the film, leaving out any adherence to reality. To increase the effect of alienation (or better yet unheimlich, the disturbing, fearful, “not comfortable” feeling that pervades expressionist films) the shadows were drawn on the interiors and walls of the set, creating oblique shadows, stretched on the walls like trees at night in a forest, threatening: expressive shadows, or, better still, expressionist ones.

Also the comparison between the definitive scenography and the preparatory sketches3 leads to a precise functionality of all the elements of the film.

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is an absolute masterpiece, made classic by time and by the ancient flavor of his vision. When we talk about hypnosis, tyranny, cravings for possessions, social contexts at the limit, one cannot but think of the misadventures of the town of Holstenwall and the singular characters who inhabited it.

Highly recommended to everyone, whether they have already seen it or not.



Tone, Pier Giorgio. Espressionismo Tedesco. La breve grande stagione del cinema degli anni Venti analizzata nei suoi procedimenti tecnico-formali. Dino Audino Editore, Roma, 2009.


English Wikipedia – (last visit 05/08/2017)

IMDB – (last visit 06/08/2017)

Italian Wikipedia – (last visit 07/08/2017)

Sognaparole Magazine – (last visit 05/08/2017)

Wikimedia Commons – (last visit 07/08/2017)

  1. Tone, Pier Giorgio. Espressionismo Tedesco. La breve grande stagione del cinema degli anni Venti analizzata nei suoi procedimenti tecnico-formali. Dino Audino Editore, Roma, 2009, p. 12.
  2. Particularly in From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological History Of The German Film – Siegfrid Kracauer, 1947. On this point, see Tone, op. cit., p. 31.
  3. Ibidem, pp. 59-60.

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