The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The first thing you need to know about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is that it is thought to be the first horror film ever actually put down on celluloid. The second thing – it is a masterpiece.

<<Seven Second Survey>>

  1. The best you’ve never heard of
  2. Political Horror Silently Transposed onto the Silver Screen
  3. The First of its Kind Among Equals
  4. Plot: of dualities; existential and socio-political inversions
  5. Real life/real horrors/for real
  6. Why you need to see it. For real.


Movie title: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Matthew’s Rating: ★★★★★ (five stars)
Movie genres: German Expressionist Cinema; Horror; (proto-)film noir; silent film
Actors: Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt as Cesare, Friedrich Feher as Francis, Lil Dagover as Jane, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Alan, Rudolf Lettinger as Dr. Olsen, Hans Lanser-Ludolff as Old Man on Bench, Henri Peters-Arnolds as Young Doctor, Ludwig Rex as Criminal, and Elsa Wagner as Landlady.

Writers: Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
Robert Wiene
Movie length: 71 m. – Trailer – Full Movie

The Best Movie You’ve Never Heard Of
There is a very real possibility that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the best film that you have never even heard of. First cast upon the silver screen in 1920 – it is often overlooked and underappreciated because it is both silent and foreign. While it may be true that most people who love films never dig very deep into the silent film era – especially those of foreign extraction – Caligari should appropriately be an exception to this. The honest truth is that the film still holds up as being immensely enjoyable to both serious and casual film lovers alike. Virtually everybody who happens upon the film and winds up watching it – either out of reference to a reviewer like myself or being told about it by a friend – discovers that they enjoy it immensely. It has stood the test of time and its artistry has spanned across generations of actors, writers, and cinemagoers alike. All in all – there a few things about the film that are of quintessential essence; the first thing you need to know about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is that it is thought to be the first horror film ever put down on celluloid. The second thing – it is a masterpiece.


Influenced By and Influences Of
Caligari was written by two men, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer – both of whom had served in the German army during WWI and both of whom were subsequently pushed into pacifism by what they had seen and endured. Although they did not claim to have made the movie expressly from what they had gone through – their respective stories served very much as the muses they would employ for the script that they would later write; borrowing from their stories and life experiences – such was when Janowitz believed he had inadvertently witnessed the murder of a young woman in 1913, in the town of Holstenwall, – which later was written as the home town that Caligari took place in. Both Janowitz and Mayer were outsiders in terms of their relationship to the existing film industry, while they worked together on the script over a period of six weeks in the winter of 1918-19. But it was not long before their names were known across the world. The initial ideological undercurrent of the film was the intent to argue that arbitrary authority in respective controlling situations is virtually almost always both harsh and irrational in its innate state and the conditions that it invariably leads to. This was, of course, an indirect commentary and blatant condemnation of the collective ‘German mind’; or at least the national attitudes of unquestioning subservience to a militaristic-nationalist and altogether generally unquestioned patriotism, which they felt it had and was continuing to overtly express itself into their national socio-political culture. It was only after the movies release that this implied philosophical ethos was transferred into a forthrightly expressed commentary regarding the cultural state and political situation-experience of Germany both before and during WWII. This comparison was so strong that in 1947 film critic and writer Siegfried Kracauer wrote a book entitled From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film which is believed to be one of the most scholarly books ever written about film. In it he argued that it was the non-political and ideologically escapist mentalities that were allegedly rife in the Weimar-era cinema scene that invariably led to the totalitarian horror that was to come. This thesis was argued for and against by many subsequent critics. [1]

Janowitz and Mayer said that they designed the sets of Caligari to be in contrast with American movies, which had been banned in Germany in 1916 – so that it would stand out from the standard Hollywood fair – which tended to ideally focus on sentimental romanticism at the time in natural and conventional forms and contexts for their stories and style. Written and shot in the German Expressionist style – it is now regarded as being the foremost example of the styles quintessential essences of embodying stark, moody and disjointed scenery along with non-traditional themes of madness/insanity, unfaithfulness and other non-romantic concepts. The entire film seems to be take place in a jagged, out of kilter landscape; its use of oblique and distorted lines, the theme of madness, murder, and abused authority all combing to initially separate it from Hollywood general output – and then secondly – make it the first real horror film – which is why critics refer to it as exactly that.

With the advent of Caligari, film writers saw an entire new category of film writing open up – where the desire to unsettle and frighten became the principle motivating factors in movie scripts. Caligari is certainly a smart horror film – in that it is using themes and style to convey its unease to viewers – but it was the inadvertent application of this script intelligence that give birth to modern horror cinematography and what went on to become classic horror cinema. As does Caligari – classic horror embodied non-romanticized thematic concepts as story drivers meant to entertain the viewer by virtue of the unmasking of deep existential fears within those who would come to watch them. Modern horror has, arguably, de-evolved into bloody, ‘slasher’ flicks where all the special affects go into more realistically done blood splattering. This is unfortunate. For in mindlessly pushing the envelope – modern horror has lost touch with what made classic horror so great; their grounding of themselves in existential uncertainties: Wolf Man, for example, which represented the fear of the hidden and uncontrollable beast that may or may not reside in all of us; The Mummy, which would come to represent a fear of the past – and the Vampire, which would eventually evolve inarguably into the most sexual of all creature features. [Read more about this in my essay(s) Monster Metanarratives on my other blog].

Caligari is a “Rahmenerzählung”, or frame story – which essentially means that the film contains a prologue and a corresponding epilogue, which serve to delineate the main body of the story as essentially being a flashback. There is also a twist at the end, which lovers of that sort of thing will most certainly enjoy. One of the first things that you may notice is that all of the sets of the movie are disjointed and out of perspective. This , as noted before, owes to the films expressionist style.

As I am often tempted to do when reviewing films that I feel have no excuse to not be watched and are easily viewable on Youtube – I will refrain from giving any significant details of the plot away. But I will make one exception and tell you that in addition to all the unique innovations and styles that Janowitz and Mayer employed while writing Caligari, – they also utilized a very unique protagonist for their agent of horror, as it were: a somnambulist or sleep walker.


Cesare, as he is called, is one of the many characters, which are unveiled to have double or dual identities. Cesare is both monster and victim. Later, we find that even Dr. Caligari himself is portrayed initially as the respected and caring director of a mental institution – only to devolve into a madman himself. The film critic Kracauer wrote that it was this duality in character which also reflected into the character of the social and political situation of order/chaos and traditional authority/oppression – aspects that were represented by Caligari’s environment but also experienced in the Weimar Republic’s state of cultural affairs – which allowed Caligari to take such a firm grasp upon the viewing publics imagination and corresponding insecurities. This duality is expressed even into the visual style of the film and how the characters are portrayed with bright white contrasted in dark shadows.

There really is no excuse to not watch this film. Even if you hate horror films – you should be able to appreciate the depth that this film as to offer. Unlike too many other films – it is operating at an appreciable depth, both in its style and in its intent. There is truly so much going on in terms of both its influence and the nature of its originality, both purposeful and inadvertent- that it has rightly been the domain of scholars and enthusiasts alike since its inception. Hopefully – after reading what I have written here – you will watch it and then maybe even read the full Wikipedia entry on it. This is a film that deserves any attention you give it. And if you are a lover of film, history, politics, or philosophy – there really is something here for you. I promise. This is why Caligari has stood the test of time and the worthiness of attentive scholarship. Like so many things in the popular culture of past ages – it is rediscovered and enjoyed by each generation of moviegoers. In this sense – Caligari has become one with history – and is an indelible part of it. In committing to film their life experiences, philosophical ideologies and existential insecurities, Janowitz and Mayer created something that has outlived themselves and has achieved the sought after immortality of the artist; the creation of a work that lives for as long as there are people with the astute capacity to recognize them for the magisterial works of art that they are. Not all of us can achieve this –for there are few who can ever actually do such. But we can join with them in celebrating achievements of excellence when we do find them. And Caligari – with its neo-horror, proto-film noir, dark jaggedness easily pulls us into a world of authoritarian madness – one where we are all lulled into subservient sleep, just as Caligari’s Cesare – to be rudely awakened with the questions of what are we doing – and what have we done? What has become of the powers of the One?


In a mere four years – Caligari will celebrate its own 100th anniversary. Our own convoluted political architecture of ambivalence and a corresponding stark misuse of both political and social power may not be all that unlike Caligari’s own story and its creators’ post-WWI Weimar Germany. Are we likewise sleepwalking under the domination of arbitrary authority? Time will tell. And the horrors of our own future may well be our own to write in the present. – Full Movie





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