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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
An Expressionist Masterpiece

Still image from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", directed by Robert Wiene, 1920
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", directed by Robert Wiene, 1920 | Still image (detail) Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Few films in cinema history have been as influential as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the long shadows of this German Expressionist classic remain vivid today.

By Robert Horton

The audience of 1920 had never seen anything like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Some viewers fainted. Reviewers argued over its exaggerated style. A writer in Variety proclaimed, "So-called cultured people who fail to see it are neglecting their education." Other filmmakers took note, as the boundaries of what was possible in the cinema suddenly expanded.
How did this singular film happen? Two friends disillusioned by the First World War, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, visited a Berlin sideshow attraction featuring a hypnotist. The spectacle inspired them to write a story about the effects of authority on a passive population, and although they were unknown writers, their script was accepted by Erich Pommer, head of the Decla film studio. The story itself is straightforward: Two friends, in love with the same young woman, attend a carnival. They encounter a hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, and his sleepwalking assistant, Cesare. In a trance, Cesare foretells the death of one of the young men, leading to an atmosphere of escalating horror in the town.

A Style of its Own

What distinguishes Caligari is the way its eerie storytelling is rendered in a strikingly artificial manner. Following the Expressionist movement that had already electrified German art and theater, the film's creators decided that this approach would best serve the bold story. Expressionism fit the interests of the art director, Hermann Warm, and the set and costume designers, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reimann, all of whom had been involved with the avant garde design magazine Der Sturm. They created the skewed shapes and geometrical patterns that formed the fantastically unreal settings for the film. As a writer for the New York Times observed in 1921, the style "gives dimensions and meanings to space, making it an active part of the story."

The film was briefly assigned to Fritz Lang, then at the beginning of one of the greatest directing careers in cinema; he was replaced by Robert Wiene. Accounts differ, but one of them suggested the film's ironic framing story, a device that partly explains why everything appears deranged. Wiene directed the actors—especially Werner Krauss, as Caligari, and Conrad Veidt, as Cesare—to pitch their performances in a distorted, expressionist style. (Krauss remained successful in Germany during the Nazi years, while Veidt fled the country and found fame in England and Hollywood.)

Caligari's Shadow

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been credited with helping launch a golden age of German film, which included dark masterpieces such as Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1926), and M (1931). Its use of décor and design to express the ideas and emotions of its characters influenced the Hollywood style of the horror film and the film noir.
Like Cesare, the film has been credited with predicting the future. Writing after the Second World War, the sociologist and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer developed the idea, in his celebrated book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari predicted the rise of the Third Reich. As Kracauer said, "Caligari is a very specific premonition in the sense that he uses hypnotic power to force his will upon his tool—a technique foreshadowing, in content and purpose, that manipulation of the soul which Hitler was the first to practice on a gigantic scale."
Perhaps because of its artificial, almost hallucinogenic design, the film has aged better than many silent classics. It was conceived from the aftermath of one world war and may have predicted another, but a century after its creation, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has passed into timelessness. As the American critic Roger Ebert observed, "The film today still casts its spell."


Robert Horton © Robert Horton Robert Horton is Seattle Weekly's Film Critic and a frequent contributor to Film Comment. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and an alumnus of the RIAS Berlin Commission exchange program. He curated the Magic Lantern film program at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. He is the author of two film books and co-author of a graphic novel. Website: roberthorton.wordpress.com; Twitter: @citizenhorton