Premiere of Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an artistic and commercial triumph that launched a wave of expressionistic filmmaking.

Summary of Event

Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) was the product of a unique set of circumstances. First was the upheaval of values in Germany after a series of disillusioning blows. These included defeat in World War I, the Spartacist (1919) and the Kapp (1920) uprisings against the unpopular Weimar Republic government responsible for the crippling Treaty of Versailles, and the great inflation that, by the early 1920’s, had wiped out the savings of Germany’s middle class. In analyzing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, film critics agree that it was the first of many films of the period to reflect the worldview of troubled Germans who questioned the nature of authority. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (film) Motion pictures;The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari[Cabinet of Doctor Caligari] Expressionism;motion pictures [kw]Premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [kw]Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Premiere of The (1920) Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (film) Motion pictures;The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari[Cabinet of Doctor Caligari] Expressionism;motion pictures [g]Germany;1920: Premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari[04960] [c]Motion pictures;1920: Premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari[04960] Wiene, Robert Warm, Hermann Röhrig, Walter Reimann, Walter Janowitz, Hans Mayer, Carl Krauss, Werner Veidt, Conrad

The second element shaping the film’s conception was the mood of rebelliousness in the arts in Germany during the period following World War I. Previous styles were associated with a culture that had bankrupted itself in war. Sigmund Freud had proved the significance of unconscious and dream states as components of reality; early twentieth century artists set themselves somehow to express these facets of reality. German expressionism, Art movements;German expressionism German expressionism defined as the outward representation of inner reality, paralleled Surrealism in France as the artistic approach thought best to represent what was real. Depending on the artist’s approach, this could mean the outward expression of the fundamental inner nature of a thing or, as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the visual expression of the world as subjectively perceived by a particular character. The film is considered to be the first and best of an era of great German films influenced by the expressionist style.

Third, cinema was still silent and experimental. This film opened the way to the testing of various means of visual expression. Set designers Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig, and Walter Reimann were affiliated with the expressionist Berlin Sturm Society. Their painted sets reflected the mind of the insane narrator of the story. Using induced perspective and sharp contrasts of light and shadow, they created a medieval-style town with narrow and angular streets and distorted houses, doors, and windows. The acting, especially that of Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari) and Conrad Veidt (Cesare, his somnambulist), was similarly expressionistic, with inner emotions exaggerated and externalized. Expressionism thus belongs to silent films, where image and set predominate and the use of dialogue—grammar and syntax—would tend to dilute the intended effect, that of immediate comprehension of the subject’s essence.

These three conditions help to explain certain features prevalent in German films of the 1920’s: the fantastic or macabre subject matter (the world seen by unbalanced, anguished society), the city street or circus sideshow locales (places on the margins of propriety, symbolic of regression into childhood, anarchy, and sensuality, where the restraints of bourgeois values seemed absent), the theme of authoritarian tyranny versus chaos, and the motif of circular movement (an organ grinder’s arm, Ferris wheel, or revolving door), a symbol of aimless, treadmill life.

The story line of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari centers on Francis, who relates a strange experience. The film is his description. In it, Dr. Caligari arrives at the town fair with his sleepwalker act. Caligari is criminally insane; he has hypnotized Cesare to kill at his bidding after predicting the victim’s death in public. Cesare commits several murders, including that of Francis’s friend Alan, and Francis is determined to find Alan’s murderer. Cesare also abducts Jane, Francis’s sweetheart, but then Cesare dies of exhaustion. Francis pursues Caligari to a lunatic asylum and finds that Caligari is the director but that he has become insanely obsessed with totally dominating his hypnotized subjects. Cesare was his great experiment, and when Cesare’s body is brought in, Caligari cracks up and becomes an inmate. With Francis’s story concluded, the camera conveys the viewer back to the frame story and reveals that Francis is actually an inmate of the asylum. The characters of his narrative—Jane, Alan, and Cesare—are also asylum figures; Francis’s Dr. Caligari is, in fact, the real, although benign, asylum director. Upon seeing Dr. Caligari, Francis becomes violent and must be straitjacketed.

Writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer objected to the intrusion of the last element of the story. The frame, added by director Robert Wiene, opened the way to the expressionist sets (the figments of Francis’s mad mind), which made the film more compelling. It is interesting to note that in Jane’s boudoir the plush furniture is almost normal. Seen through Francis’s eyes, the room is sensuously round, with many pillows and heart shapes, reflecting his passion for Jane. The room is at once the essence of sexuality and the world as seen through the eyes of one main character. Similarly, a scene set in a jail cell conveys the universal essence of confinement. The prisoner sits attached to a ball and chain on the floor of a dank, narrow cell.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an immediate success. It was perfect in its genre, and imitators often failed by their excesses or obvious artificialities. Wiene himself attempted to capitalize on “Caligarisme” in 1920 with his film Genuine, the name of which was taken from a priestess who seduces and then kills her lovers. The film’s expressionist sets overpowered the acting, and it was a failure. Wiene’s 1923 adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) was more successful. The expressionist sets intruded more naturally, reflecting the hallucinations of despair in the mind of the protagonist. Also successful in imitating The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was Henrik Galeen’s remake of Der Student von Prag (1926; The Student of Prague), Student of Prague, The (film) with Veidt as the protagonist Baldwin. Baldwin gives his mirror image to a sorcerer in return for wealth and marriage to a beautiful and aristocratic woman. The image becomes his evil self, and when he finally shoots it, he kills himself. Most of the people connected with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari found success after the film.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reached the United States in April, 1921. A review in The New York Times described it as creating a new adjective for American filmgoers: “European.” Hailing it as a perfect harmony of setting, plot, and acting in its expressionist style, the reviewer predicted a slew of poor imitations. Although the imitators were many, the films of Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, and other German filmmakers who moved to the United States certainly should not be classified as poor. Many of these films adopted the theme of tyranny or chaos, in particular Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry (1919), F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922; Nosferatu the Vampire), Lang’s Dr. Mabuse der Spieler(1922; Dr. Mabuse the Gambler), and Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfiguren kabinett (1924; Waxworks).

Madame DuBarry, Madame DuBarry (film)[Madame Dubarry] set in the time of Louis XV, appeared at the time of the fall of the German monarchy. The film supports authority and drains the French Revolution of its significance: Its plot involves an unhappy love affair and an angry lover who persuades the masses to take the Bastille. Dmitri Buchowetsky’s Danton (1921; All for a Woman) also showed contempt for the French Revolution: The people abandon Georges Danton for Augustin Robespierre’s promise of free food. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (film)[Doctor Mabuse the Gambler] like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, involves a supposedly insane doctor seeking power. Mabuse symbolized illegitimate authority inciting or hypnotizing others to do evil. Like its predecessors, the film used expressionistic sets. Another Lang film, Metropolis (1927), Metropolis (film) is rich with imaginative and symbolic sets. The great furnaces that support the futuristic city are seen by the workers as man-devouring Moloch. The dictator of Metropolis employs an evil robot, identical to the saintly Maria, to control the workers. At the end, the workers’ representative shakes hands with the dictator, symbolizing the union of labor and a now-benign management. In the three separate episodes of Waxworks (1924), expressionist sets accompany the animation of the wax figures of tyrants Hārūn al-Rashīd (portrayed by Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss).

Strict expressionist films used painted, stylized set designs and were filmed entirely indoors under lighting that emphasized sharp contrasts and camera angles to produce grotesque images. By 1929, however, these techniques gave way to the New Realism. Dream sequences utilizing new Freudian symbols, such as those in G. W. Pabst’s Geheimnisse einer Seele (1926; Secrets of a Soul), no longer depended on Caligarian designs but were created by camera fades and concave or convex mirrors. Even so, numerous other German movies of the period and long afterward used expressionist devices for the visual projection of the macabre or the fantastic, even if expressionist stylization was used solely to create dramatic atmosphere or reflect a character’s momentary hallucination.

Arthur Robison’s Schatten (1922; Warning Shadows) Warning Shadows (film) projected the hallucinations of a jealous husband, his amorous wife, and her four lovers. A traveling showman hypnotizes each in turn, creating a series of shadow plays that the subjects perceive as real events. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924; The Last Laugh) Last Laugh, The (film) stars Emil Jannings as a uniformed doorman at a fine hotel. His age causes his demotion to keeper of the latrine and an attendant loss of esteem, and Murnau uses the expressionist symbol of revolving doors to symbolize the aimless, endless revolutions of life and fortune. The film features a famous dream sequence with multiple exposures, distorting lenses, slow motion, stylized figures, and confused locales. Similarly, Ernö Metzner’s Der Überfall (1928; The Accident) could also be called expressionist for its use of distorted mirrors to create images in the mind of a man in trauma after an accident.

Many American directors were also inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Aware that realism is often inadequate, Orson Welles Welles, Orson used both surrealistic dream sequences and expressionistic distortions to project inner emotion, particularly in his Macbeth (1948). Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s Hitchcock, Alfred black-and-white thrillers, from Rebecca (1940) to Psycho (1960), have expressionist moments. In Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945), expressionist effects include the camera stalking the victim as if it were the criminal, deliberate camera distortions, and the symbolism of the spiral stairs. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman must also be named in the context of expressionism. As film historian Lotte Eisner has noted, in 1919 artists were asking “Why depict realism? Everyone can see the real world.” Expressionism was born from the belief that artists must express personal visions of external facts, even (and perhaps especially) if they are colored by emotions. Thus expression’s very nature makes it biased.

When it was released in February, 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was reviewed as “the first work of art on the screen.” Opinions of its merits varied, but it was perceived by many critics as a film that liberated a new artistic medium and demonstrated what was formally and psychologically possible in film. The film is significant for both artistic and sociological reasons. After its appearance, German film directors were in demand in Hollywood and elsewhere, and they were admired for their control of the whole creative process, for their integration of plot, lighting, sets, and actors, and for being the first to use completely mobile cameras. Moreover, the film successfully utilized expressionist techniques that would influence the films of Germany and elsewhere.

The sociological significance of the film lies in its depiction of many Germans’ neuroses after World War I. The films of a nation—including, of course, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—often reflect that nation’s collective mentality because they depend on mass appeal for their success. Siegfried Kracauer asserted that the films of Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), the major German film company during the 1920’s and 1930’s, used expressionism to reflect the German people’s deeply rooted desire for strong government control (as the alternative to national chaos). The bizarre atmosphere of unreason and dread conveyed by so many expressionist films led Kracauer to conclude that under Hitler, Germany carried out what had been anticipated by cinema. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The (film) Motion pictures;The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari[Cabinet of Doctor Caligari] Expressionism;motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barlow, John D. German Expressionist Film. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Excellent survey of expressionism, with detailed summaries of films. Chapter on the heritage of expressionism alerts the reader to films currently available or shown in the media. Contains an extensive filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Paul. German Expressionist Film. Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England: Pocket Essentials, 2002. Brief, readable introduction to German cinema. An excellent starting point.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisner, Lotte H. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Translated by Roger Greaves. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. The classic treatment of German silent expressionist films. Expressionism as an intellectual movement is set against the background of German cultural tradition. Amply illustrated with stills; extensive filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Furness, R. S. Expressionism. London: Methuen, 1973. An extensive discussion of the historical origins and precursors of expressionism in Germany and elsewhere. Evaluates the various definitions of expressionism. Goes beyond films to investigate expressionism in literature and other media.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947. Presents a psychosociological interpretation of German films of the 1920’s and 1930’s that views Germany as a nation in a post-Versailles treaty malaise that borders on neurosis. Asserts that whole films reflected this sense and manifested a desire for a strong leader who would resurrect the nation. Highly recommended, although some analysts believe that Kracauer overinterprets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Manvell, Roger. The German Cinema. New York: Praeger, 1971. General history of German films from its origins to the 1960’s. Devotes two chapters to films of the Nazi period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scheuneman, Dietrich. Expressionist Film: New Perspectives. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003. Work by an authority on German film provides some interesting updates to the books by Eisner and Kracauer cited above.

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Categories: History