Home > Cinema, Weimar Republic > The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

I decided to delay this post by a day or two because a lot of reviews claim that this movie is disturbing in a very subtle manner. I will agree with them. You will have dreams about this movie, this I promise. Nothing nightmarish, but very, very bizzare ones. Released in 1920, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (German : Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari) is a groundbreaking German silent film, one of the earliest films in both the Expressionist and horror genres. What stands out is the absolute adherence to the Expressionist movement – the brilliant use of set design and light to convey emotion, the heavy make-up, and the dark storyline. The set design is brilliant, simply brilliant, a combination of absurd geometrical shapes all combining to create a very disturbing effect. The heavy and ghastly-looking make-up, even on the hero, adds to the effect. Slanting, narrow slits for windows, buildings that loom out of nowhere, government officials on absurdly high tables and chairs…… the artwork has an almost psychedelic air to it. Watch it for the sets if for nothing else, and I am sure only morons of the highest order will face such an eventuality.


The movie opens with in the form of a flashback (one of the earliest examples of this method), where the narrator Francis takes you back to a fair in the tiny German mountain town of Holstenwall, to which he is taken by his friend Alan. The queer Dr. Caligari is first seen at the town clerk’s ofice, applying for a permit to display a somnambulist at the fair. It is granted, after the usual red-tapism, probably shown by the high stool the clerk sits on. Mysteriously, he is found dead in a short time.

Dr. Caligari displays Cesare the somnambulist, reportedly asleep for 23 years and endowed with powers of prophecy. He can answer any question posed to him, Dr. Caligari brags. When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare replies that Alan won’t live past dawn the next day. True to the prophecy, Alan is murdered that night. A shocked Francis decides to investigate the issue himself.

That very night, a man is caught while trying to enter an old woman’s house, intending to murder her. Newspapers proclaim that the double-murderer has been nabbed. Meanwhile, Francis and Dr. Olsen (his fiancee Jane’s father) are questioning Dr. Caligari outside his little cabin. Upon hearing of the new development, they rush to the police station, where the supposed murderer is being interrogated. He confesses that he wanted to murder the old lady, but he thought that it would be blamed on the mysterious double-murderer. He himself had nothing to do with those murders.

Meanwhile, Dr. Olsen’s long absence starts to worry his daughter Jane, who goes off in search of him. She wanders into the fair grounds, and encounters Dr. Caligari, who takes her to Cesare. She is frightened, and runs off.

The following night, Francis decides to snoop on Dr. Caligari once again. He positions himself outside Dr. Caligari’s window, where he is able to see Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Oddly, we then see Cesare creeping up to Jane, who is sleeping in her bed. He originally wants to kill her, but relents after her beauty captivates him, and he merely kidnaps her. Jane’s screaming awakens the household, and soon a mob of townspeople are chasing Cesare through the town. A disoriented Cesare drops Jane, stumbles on, and falls to his death.

When Francis returns, he is told that Cesare tried to kidnap Jane. Francis is surprised, because he has been snooping on Dr. Caligari and Cesare was asleep for hours. Upon hearing this, Dr. Olsen and Francis run to the police station, suspecting that the “murderer” has escaped. He is revealed to be safe within his cell. They then rush to Dr. Caligari’s cabin, where it turns out that the Cesare Francis had been watching was actually a dummy. In the commotion, Dr. Caligari escapes and is chased by Francis; both end up at the local mental asylum, and it is revealed that Dr. Caligari is the director of the asylum.

When Dr. Caligari is asleep, his office is searched, and a number of details tumble out. It turns out that the director fantasises himself to be Dr. Caligari, an 18th-century travelling “doctor” who exhibited a somnambulist, and then used him as a tool to commit murder. When confronted with the corpse of Cesare, the director breaks down, and his mania is revealed.

At this point, the scene shifts back to the present, with Francis and his companion in the same asylum. In a twist to the ending, it turns out that Francis is insane, and the entire story is merely his fantasy. It ends with the same director of the mental asylum claiming he knows what afflicts Francis and that he can be cured.


The plot is full of suspense at all times, and the movie is way ahead for it’s time. Some of the most brilliant artwork is seen in Alan’s room, the depiction of the town at night, the police station, and in the mental asylum, especially the director’s room and the cell where they put Dr. Caligari and Francis. One of the best uses of light i found in the film was when the just-nabbed murderer is interrogated at the police station. Pure genius. The approach to the director’s room in the asylum, and the room itself convey a sense of madness rarely seen.

Also, the concept of “criminal appearance”, which had taken hold in Victorian times is seen in depictions of criminals here, and in movies from around the same timespan, culminating in blatant racial profiling in cinema from the Third Reich.

All in all, a masterpiece from the silent-era. I rate it 9/10.

Currently reading: Divina Commedia: Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1321); Snow (Orhan Pamuk, 2006)

Music: Rosetta: The Galilean Satellites (2005).

Categories: Cinema, Weimar Republic
  1. G. Abhinav
    November 22, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    What do you rate 10/10?

  2. November 23, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    We want a status report on Room 188 H Wing!

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