100 years of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: why we’re still living in its shadows

A century after the release of the Expressionist horror landmark, we peer inside the cabinet to assess why Caligari had such a huge impact on the cinema.

25 February 2020

By Alex Barrett

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

One hundred years on from its original release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains a landmark of silent cinema, and a milestone in the development of film as a medium. One of the most discussed pictures of all time, Robert Wiene’s classic, which premiered in Berlin on 26 February 1920, has been called “the first true horror film” (by no less than US critic Roger Ebert). It has also been heralded as one of cinema’s earliest ‘art’ films, helping the fledgling medium to be taken seriously as an art form.

As Paul Rotha once said, Caligari hit the silver screen “like a drop of wine in an ocean of salt water”. Here, we look at some of the reasons behind the film’s earth-shattering impact.

It captured the spirit of its time

After facing a humiliating defeat at the hands of its enemies during the First World War, Germany suffered an unprecedented economic crisis, brought about by the costs of war and the crippling reparation payments demanded by the Allied powers. The country, left devastated by the deaths and disfigurements of its soldiers, slumped into a postwar malaise – a malaise that was perfectly captured by Caligari’s dark and sombre tones.

The film focuses on Franzis (Friedrich Fehér), a student in a small German town, whose friend falls victim to a mass-murdering somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who kills while under the control of a local fairground entertainer and hypnotist, Caligari (Werner Krauss). As producer Erich Pommer put it: “The mystery and macabre atmosphere of the Grand Guignol was currently in vogue in German films, and this story fitted perfectly.”

For a country still darkened by the shadow of war, the on-screen deaths couldn’t help but recall those of the battlefield, and later critics would point towards Cesare as a stand-in for the brave young soldiers who were sent to fight, kill and die at the behest of a callous government.

Still, with the war at an end, international territories began lifting their restrictions on screening German films, and Caligari benefitted from the fortuitous timing of its release. Furthermore, earlier films, such as The Golem (1915), had all references to their German origins removed when playing in Allied countries like America. As such, Caligari, as an identifiably German film, became a trailblazer for the German industry as a whole.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

It drew on the popular arts

If Caligari’s story was imbued with the emotional turmoil of the times, its visual style would go one further, breaking radically from reality and creating a chiaroscuro world of contorted angles and sharp jagged edges. Hugely innovative and influential, the studio-bound expressionist set design singled Caligari out as an ‘art’ film, while also linking it to a popular movement of the day – thus giving the film a strong commercial appeal.

At the time Caligari was made, expressionism – which seeks to present the external world as experienced by inner, subjective emotions – was a well-established art movement encompassing painting, literature, architecture, music and theatre. It was much in vogue in contemporary artistic circles, often being used by artists to express the discontent and depression of postwar society.

The decision to use the style for Caligari was driven as much by economic as artistic reasons, with production head Rudolf Meinert maintaining that the experimental style would cause a sensation among audiences, regardless of how it was received by the press. Caligari was not the first film to make use of Expressionism, but it was among the first to use it in such an all-encompassing fashion.

The film’s leading actors, Werner Krauss (Caligari) and Conrad Veidt (Cesare), had both worked under legendary expressionist theatre impresario Max Reinhardt, and their movements, along with those of the other actors, merge with the set design to form geometric patterns – a perfect fusion of expressionist design:

The sense of unease and dread instilled by Caligari’s contorted images would have a huge influence not only on Weimar cinema but also on future generations of horror filmmakers.

It had an innovative, ambiguous structure

The central narrative of Caligari is surrounded by a frame story: sitting on a bench, Franzis recounts his adventures, only for it to be later revealed – in a pioneering twist ending – that Franzis is an inmate at an insane asylum. The institute’s head doctor? Caligari himself!

Seen in this way, the stylised look of the film becomes justifiable as the raving visions of a madman, reflecting his inner thoughts – pure expressionism.

Some theorists, notably Siegfried Kracauer, have criticised the frame story, claiming that it subverts the film’s anti-authoritarian message by reinstating Caligari as a figure of authority and reducing his crimes to being the delusions of a madman. However, a closer look reveals something more ambiguous: the asylum, as seen in the frame story (ie the objective ‘real’ world), has the same expressionistic look as it does in the ‘subjective’ world of Franzis’ story – thereby problematising the division between truth and delusion. This is further compounded by Caligari’s sinister final assertion that he knows how to ‘cure’ Franzis. Is there not still some evil lurking under this respectable, authoritative guise?

The one-two punch of the dramatic twist and the deep-seated uncertainty of this final sequence is surely one of the many factors that contributes to Caligari’s bewitching power and makes it such a fascinating, mysterious and resonant film, even 100 years after it was made. 

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