The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: A Fascinating Film


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, became the world’s first horror film and an exemplary example of German Expressionism upon its release in 1920. German Expressionism was a popular film movement during the 1920s, especially in Berlin, and focused on portraying the world in an anti-realistic fashion (which is quite in contrast to Italian Neorealism which I discussed in a previous post).

This was often done by building sets and painting backgrounds that were intentionally distorted, geometrical, bold, an confusing, significantly influenced by expressionist artwork, some examples of which can be seen from artists such as Franz Marc, Egon Schiele, and Edvard Munch. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari commits fully to expressionism through its portrayal of characters, set design, cinematography and even intertitles.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
An example of the disorienting architecture from a scene in the film

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The film begins with the character Francis chatting with an old man on a bench when they are interrupted by a woman that wanders by, Jane, appearing to be in a haze. Francis tells the old man that Jane is his fiancee and that they had recently gone through some terrible occurrences. From here on, the majority of the movie is told in flashback. Francis tells of himself and his friend Alan going to a fair in the town of Holstenwall, an odd place full of crooked houses, tilted windows and doors, and jagged, winding streets, in which most of the film is set.

In the meantime, a strange man named Dr. Caligari appears in town and wishes to present his show in the fair–the spectacle of a somnambulist named Cesare who can read one’s future–but he needs to get permission from a rude clerk, which he eventually does. Later, the clerk is found murdered in his home.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Set Photos Go Up For Auction | IndieWire
Dr. Caligari (left) and Cesare the sleepwalker.

One day, Francis and Alan visit Dr. Caligari’s show at the fair, the doctor opening a coffin and presenting Cesare, a gaunt sleepwalker who is said to have never awoken from his sleep until now to answer the questions of the audience. Alan asks, “How long will I live?” Cesare answers, “Until the break of dawn,” striking terror into Alan. This is shown to be true later on when Alan is stabbed to death in his home. The scene of his murder was filmed via a technique that was highly innovative at the time: by showing the shadows of the murderer and the clerk on the wall as the murder occurs rather than the people themselves, a technique that many noir films in future years would hearken back to.

Francis, distraught by the loss of his friends, helps to investigate the murder along with Jane and her father who obtains a police permit to investigate the sleepwalker. A criminal is caught red-handed attempting to murder an old woman, but he denies taking part in the two previous murders. Nevertheless, he is imprisoned. In the meantime, during the night, Francis spies on Caligari in his small, crooked house which also contains Cesare sleeping in his coffin-like box. However, what Francis believes to be Cesare is actually a dummy while the real Cesare, sleepwalking, breaks into Jane’s house to kidnap her.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (4K Restoration) - Kino Lorber Repertory
Cesare kidnapping Jane.

The Details

Before kidnapping Jane, Cesare tries to stab her to death, but she wakes and puts up a struggle, leading Cesare to drag her out of her house and down the street. He carries her as quickly as he can, but still can not move fast enough to escape a mob that spotted him. He drops Jane and runs off but eventually drops to the ground and dies. Francis and some policemen enter Caligari’s house and discover that the sleeping Cesare inside is only a dummy. During this time, Caligari is able to escape, but Francis sees him running into an insane asylum. Dismayed, Francis discovers that Dr. Caligari is actually the director of the asylum.

Determined to learn more about Caligari, Francis waits until the doctor is asleep and rummages through his office, discovering his diary. His diary oozes an obsession with a story from the 1700s about a mystic named Caligari who bent the will of a sleepwalker named Cesare to commit murders. The director of the asylum followed in the story’s footsteps, finding his own somnambulist that had been admitted to the mental hospital. Francis calls the police to the asylum who bring in Cesare’s corpse. In the commotion, Caligari arrives in the office as well. He attacks one of the asylum’s staff members when he realizes his acts have been discovered. He is overcome and put in a straitjacket before being thrown into a cell.

Patients of the asylum.

The film retreats from its flashback and into the present where Francis ends his story. However, as Francis leaves the bench where he was conversing with an old man, he returns to the insane asylum where he finds many of the institution’s inmates grouped together just outside of the building. He spots Cesare, awake, wandering around harmlessly as he gazes at some flowers in his hands. Francis also finds Jane sitting in a throne, believing she is a queen.

Then, Caligari emerges from the building, no longer restrained but rather still the respected director of the asylum. Francis attacks him in rage but is put into a straitjacket and thrown into a cell. Dr. Caligari declares that he has finally figured out Francis’s mental delusions and is sure that he can be cured. The film ends, leaving the viewer to realize that the majority of the film was nothing more than Francis’s twisted delusion. Now, you know all about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

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