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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (original title: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is a groundbreaking 1920 silent film directed by Robert Wiene from a screenplay written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It is one of the earliest, most influential and most artistically acclaimed German Expressionist films.

Plot Edit

The film tells the story of the deranged Dr. Caligari and his faithful sleepwalking Cesare and their connection to a string of murders in a German mountain village, Holstenwall. Caligari presents one of the earliest examples of a motion picture "frame story" in which the body of the plot is presented as a flashback, as told by Francis.

The narrator, Francis, and his friend Alan visit a carnival in the village where they see Dr. Caligari and Cesare, whom the doctor is displaying as an attraction. Caligari brags that Cesare can answer any question he is asked. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare tells Alan that he will die tomorrow at dawn — a prophecy which turns out to be fulfilled.

Francis, along with his girlfriend Jane, investigate Caligari and Cesare, which eventually leads to Jane's kidnapping by Cesare. Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, but the hypnotized slave relents after her beauty captivates him. He carries Jane out of her house, leading the townsfolk on a lengthy chase. Francis discovers Caligari is the head of the local insane asylum, and with the help of his colleagues discovers that he is obsessed with the story of a previous Dr. Caligari, who used a somnambulist to murder people as a traveling act.

Cesare falls to his death during the pursuit and the townsfolk discover that Caligari had created a dummy of Cesare to distract Francis. After being confronted with the dead Cesare, Caligari breaks down and reveals his mania and is imprisoned in his asylum. The influential twist ending reveals that Francis' flashback is actually his fantasy: Caligari is his asylum doctor, who, after this revelation of his patient's delusion, claims to be able to cure him.

Cast Edit


  • Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari
  • Conrad Veidt as Cesare
  • Friedrich Fehér as Francis
  • Lil Dagover as Jane
  • Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Alan
  • Rudolf Lettinger as Dr. Olson
  • Hans Lanser-Rudolf
  • Henri Peters-Arnolds


  • Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Criminal
  • Ludwig Rex as Murderer
  • Elsa Wagner as Landlady

History Edit

Writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer met each other in Berlin following World War I. The two saw the then-new film medium as a revolutionary form of artistic expression – visual storytelling that necessitated collaboration between writers and painters, cameramen, actors, directors. They felt that film was the ideal medium through which to both call attention to the emerging pacifism in postwar Germany and exhibit the radical anti-bourgeois art.

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

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

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

Production Edit

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

Pommer first approached Fritz Lang to direct this film, but he was committed to work on Die Spinnen (The Spiders),[1] so Pommer gave directorial duties to Robert Wiene. Wiene filmed a test scene to prove Warm, Reimann, and Röhrig's theories, and it was so impressive that Pommer gave his artists free rein. Janowitz, Mayer, and Wiene would later use the same artistic methods on another production, Genuine, which was less successful commercially and critically.

The producers, who wanted a less macabre ending, imposed upon the director the idea that everything turns out to be Francis' delusion. The original story made it clear that Caligari and Cesare were real and were responsible for a number of deaths.

Filming took place in December 1919 and January 1920. The film premiered at the Marmorhaus in Berlin on February 26, 1920.

Responses Edit

Critics worldwide have praised the film for its Expressionist style, complete with wild, distorted set design—a striking use of mise en scène. Caligari has been cited as an influence on film noir, one of the earliest horror films, and a model for directors for many decades, including Alfred Hitchcock.

Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler (1947) postulates that the film can be read as an allegory for German social attitudes in the period preceding World War II. He argues that the character of Caligari represents a tyrannical figure, to whom the only alternative is social chaos (represented by the fairground). However, Kracauer's work has been largely discredited by contemporary scholars of German cinema, for example by Thomas Elsaesser in Weimar Cinema and After, who describes the legacy of Kracauer's work as a "historical imaginary". Elsaesser claims that Kracauer studied too few films to make his thesis about the social mindset of Germany legitimate and that the discovery and publication of the original screenplay of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari undermines his argument about the revolutionary intent of its writers. Elsaesser's alternative thesis is that the filmmakers adopted an Expressionist style as a method of product differentiation, establishing a distinct national product against the increasing import of American films. Dietrich Scheunemann, somewhat in defense of Kracauer, noted that he didn't have "the full range of materials at (his) disposal". However, that fact "has clearly and adversely affected the discussion of the film", referring to the fact that the script of Caligari wasn't rediscovered until 1977 and that Kracauer hadn't seen the film in around 20 years when he wrote the work.

Adaptations and works inspired by the film Edit

The film was adapted into an opera in 1997, by composer John Moran. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, directed by Robert McGrath.

Numerous musicians have composed new musical scores to accompany the film. In 1994, jazz bassist Mark Dresser led pianist Denman Maroney and trumpeter Dave Douglas in his compositions for the film, which they performed live at the Knitting Factory and released on CD in 1994. The British electronica band In The Nursery created an ambient soundtrack for the film, released on CD in 1996. In 2002, British musician and composer Geoff Smith composed a new soundtrack to the film for the hammered dulcimer, which he performed live as an accompaniment to the film.

In 2006, Peruvian rock group Kinder composed a soundtrack to the film, performing it live during the screenings. The venue was "El Cinematógrafo", a film club in the district of Barranco.

A radio version is published by Blackstone Audio featuring John de Lancie, written and produced by Yuri Rasovsky.

In 2005, the Chicago-based Redmoon Theater performed a Bunraku adaptation of the film. The only dialogue throughout the 80 minute production was the thoughts of Cesare as played through a Victor Talking Machine at the base of the stage. The stage was made up of many small stages with a dominant large stage, each being a drawer or cupboard in a large cabinet.

A movie with a very similar title, The Cabinet of Caligari, produced by William Castle and written by Robert Bloch, was made in 1962, claiming to be inspired by this movie.

Jean-Marc Lofficier wrote Superman's Metropolis, a trilogy of graphic novels for DC Comics illustrated by Ted McKeever, the second of which was entitled Batman: Nosferatu, most of the plot derived from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

A sound remake was released in 2005 and won several awards at horror film festivals. It attempted to reproduce the look of the original film as closely as possible.

Caligari in popular culture Edit

  • In Lemony Snicket's book The Carnivorous Carnival, the action takes place in the Caligari Carnival, which features a somewhat less-than-authentic fortune teller and a freak show.
  • The appearance of the title character in the film Edward Scissorhands is based in part on that of Cesare.
  • A Spanish pop/rock band is called Gabinete Caligari.
  • There was a Japanese rock band called Cali Gari.
  • The 1998 music video for Rob Zombie single "Living Dead Girl" restaged several scenes from the film, with Zombie in the role of Caligari beckoning to the fair attendees. In addition to artificially imitating the poor image quality of aged film, the video also made use of the expressionistic sepia, aqua, and violet tinting used in Caligari. The film also inspired imagery in the video for "Forsaken" (2002), from the soundtrack for the motion picture Queen of the Damned.
  • In The X-Files, the character Jose Chung, a novelist, wrote a book called The Caligarian Candidate.
  • A popular band in Indiana, Ghost of Maine, has made a song called "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari".
  • The band Janitor's Jacket has a song called "Dr. Caligari".
  • Expressionist rock band Pere Ubu has a song entitled "Caligari's Mirror".
  • "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is the name of a medical device used to keep a biochip "alive" during transportation in the Neal Stephenson novel Interface.
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers music video for the song "Otherside" emulates to some degree the visual style of this and other German Expressionist films.
  • The film can be seen in the background of a dorm room scene in the 2002 movie, The Rules of Attraction.
  • A Los Angeles based heavy metal band called Caligari was formed in 2006 featuring former members of Five Finger Death Punch and Tryptycon though no album has yet been released.

References Edit

1. ^ a b c d e f g Peary, Danny (1988). Cult Movies 3. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., Pages 48-51. ISBN 0-671-64810-1. 2. ^ Robinson, David (1997). Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari. British Film Institute, 47. 3. ^ Kracauer, Siegfried (2004 edition; 1947, original English translation). From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton University Press. 4. ^ Elsaesser, Thomas (2000). Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary. Routledge. 5. ^ (2003) in Scheunemann, Dietrich: Expressionist Films: New Perspectives. Routledge, 128. 6. ^ The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari multimedia theatre piece.

External linksEdit

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