Movie Discussion: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari] (1920)

  • Monthly Theme: Protohorrorthe-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-movie-poster1
  • The Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • Country of origin: Germany
  • German title: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
  • Date of German release: February 17, 1920
  • Date of U.S. release: March 19, 1921
  • Studio: Decla-Bioscop AG
  • Distributer: Goldwyn Distributing Company
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $18,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Robert Wiene
  • Producers: Rudolf Meinert & Erich Pommer [both uncredited]
  • Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz & Carl Mayer
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Willy Hameister
  • Make-Up/FX: Walter Reimann, et al.
  • Music: Alfredo Antonini, et al.
  • Part of a series? No. However, an unofficial semi-sequel was released in 1989 called Dr. Caligari that has gone on to achieve cult status.
  • Remakes? Yes. A loose remake, written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, was released in 1962 titled The Cabinet of Caligari. An experimental remake called The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez was released in 1991. Another remake was released in 2005 as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror actor Conrad Veidt (The Hands of Orlac, The Student of Prague (1926), etc.).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “A thrilling fantastic photo-play.”
  • The Lowdown: Wiene’s surrealist classic is about a traveling hypnotist, the eccentric Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose arrival in a mountain village coincides with a series of gruesome murders. A local man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) begins to suspect that Caligari’s strange sideshow attraction – Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a man trapped in a perpetual dream state who can prophecy the future – may be responsible for the murders. The film is both formally inventive in its use of Cubist-inspired set design and surrealistic touches and narratively inventive, nesting its story in a series of narrative layers involving frame stories, back stories and side stories. Considered a masterpiece of silent cinema, Caligari’s U.S. release led to some controversial rioting in response to a perceived invasion of Germanic ideas.

If you haven’t seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: When I announced that March was going to be all silent films, you expressed some apprehension. You were worried that you’d be bored/uninterested or that the movies would themselves be uninvolving and not scary. So now that we’ve watched two movies, what are your thoughts? How was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari compared to The Phantom of the Opera?

Kristine: I dug this movie a lot more than Phantom. I found it to be significantly better, which is interesting because I realized that the plots are pretty similar. There’s a helpless woman who is abducted by a madman, then two dudebros that I don’t give two fucks about (in this case Francis and Alan) have to journey into an uncanny world that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in order to save her. The visual craziness of Caligari really worked for me, much more than the traditional Gothic setpieces in Phantom. I loved the off-kilter, Cubism-inspired sets and all the bizarro visual details. I also dug the downer, paranoid ending.

Sean: This is weirder and more “avant garde” than Phantom, for sure.

When Caligari opens the cabinet, he reveals his big stiffie

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: I was struck by the movie’s obsession with psychoanalysis.

Kristine: I honestly don’t know how much of that I picked up on. I was pretty absorbed with the aesthetics and the creepiness and I was very distracted by how disgusting Dr. Caligari is.

Sean: This movie innovated a lot of tropes that are familiar to us now, but were fresh and new when the movie first came out.

Kristine: Like what?

Sean: Like the twist ending where everything is revealed to be a dream/delusion.

Kristine: I loved that. And the first thing I thought of was American Horror Story: Asylum, which lifts that and many other things from Caligari.

Sean: Right.

Kristine: I really, really liked the twist ending here.

Sean: What did you like about the twist?

Kristine: I was genuinely shocked and surprised by it. I didn’t see it coming at all. Also, it taps into a very scary and widespread human fear – to realize that everyone thinks you’re crazy, when you’re certain that you’re not. And of course, the old school insane asylum was pretty amazing. All the freaky inmates milling about the courtyard. The horror of being “fixed” with Caligari’s “cure.” When you first watched this, what did you think about the twist ending?

Sean: I had read about the movie and had the ending spoiled for me. I knew it was a famous example of the “it was all a dream” plot before I watched it.

Presence of rape-threat: the monster enters the heroine’s bedroom

Kristine: You haven’t said if you liked the movie. And do agree that Caligari is a thick-tongued, yellow-haired, wax-buildup-having disgusting freak?

Sean: To be honest, this movie doesn’t really do anything for me. I concede that it is visually stunning, but I find to be quite boring. I had a really hard time connecting to it the first time I watched it, though this time I enjoyed it more.

Kristine: Interesting.

Sean: I feel like a lowbrow.

Kristine: I wasn’t bored. Maybe I am just easily entertained and shocked by twist endings. Did the Somnambulist delight you, at least?

Sean: Cesare the Somnambulist is my favorite part. I find that actor, Conrad Veidt, to be really magnetic. Universal Pictures actually brought Veidt over to the U.S. to star in their other horror silents after Lon Chaney signed an exclusive contract with MGM.

Kristine: Ah.

Sean: I think Cesare is the most watchable thing about the movie and his reveal, when Caligari opens the “cabinet” (coffin) and Cesare opens his eyes, is a pretty spectacular cinematic moment.

Kristine: The way he slinks around the bizarre sets was awesome. The actor’s kinetics in general were great.

Sean: Yes, yes, and Cesare leering over Jane’s body was hilarious and weird and unsettling.

Kristine: The Somnabulist is the prototype goth, right? I can easily picture him in leotards, holding up the wall at some goth club, gloomily chain-smoking clove cigarettes.

The asylum as goth literary salon

Sean: Yeah, he works as a proto-goth. He’s also reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, right?

Kristine: I know this is weird because this is the earliest movie we have watched, but the character felt really fresh to me, even though he is very familiar. You’re right that he’s a quasi-Frankenstein’s monster, which is familiar, and he’s also a tragic monster who is being manipulated by a Bad Daddy, which is also a very familiar trope.

Sean: Yes, very Manchurian Candidate. Someone programmed to kill against their own inclinations.

Kristine: True.

Sean: Cesare is the movie’s most sympathetic figure, right? The living doll? The Pinocchio?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: The common reading of Cesare is that he’s meant to stand in for the wounded/returned/damaged soldiers who came home after the Great War – that the sleepwalker in the movie is a metaphor for PTSD-damaged men returned from the trenches of WWI.

Kristine: That makes sense. May I share some info on German Expressionism that I found interesting?

Sean: Please.

He keeps his boytoy in a trunk and plays with him when he’s bored

Kristine: Let me quote from Roger Ebert’s (4-star) review of the film:

In one of the best-known books ever written about film, From Caligari to Hitler, the art historian Siegfried Kracauer argued that the rise of Nazism was foretold by the preceding years of German films, which reflected a world at wrong angles and lost values. In this reading, Caligari was Hitler and the German people were sleepwalkers under his spell.

It’s all about the Nazis, Sean. Always.

Sean: I am totally on board with this. I honestly wasn’t even thinking about fascism when I was watching/processing this movie, which makes me feel pretty stupid.

Kristine: It makes perfect sense if you read all the bustling officials in their little uniforms as Nazi prototypes. I just remembered a visual I loved – those insanely high stools that the officials perch on, bent over 90 degrees and writing away frantically with intense Germanic energy.

Sean: Yeah, they’re crazy. So many of the rooms and spaces in the movie are amazingly weird.

Kristine: Whether you think about returning soldiers from WWI or the rise of fascism in Germany as a lens through which to view the movie, you wind up in a very similar place. The point being that the machine of war/bureaucracy/fascism is stomping out the individual in favor of an order-taking zombie who murders on command.

Sean: God, that’s terrifying.

Kristine:  Speaking of all the crazy rooms and spaces in the film – I simultaneously dug and was totally skeeved out by the asymmetrical, bigger-on-the-inside-than-outside traveling trailer where Caligari and Cesare live. It is a prototype of the modern rape-van.

Sean: Oh my god, it is. Can I share a quote? This comes from David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.

Kristine: Please.

Cesare = the proto-slasher

Sean: It’s about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s relationship to other art movements. Skal writes about how critics at the time equated the movie to Dadaists,

to whom everything in the world is equally important-a sort of reflection in the world of plastic representation of the conceptions of relativity which are agitating mathematicians and astronomers. Thus the picture stands in the current of living thought… [It] makes sanity seem relative as insanity is relative – and constitutes a valuable offset to the American tendency to oversureness of intellectual values.

So the idea here is that the movie represents both philosophical quandaries (about representations of the ‘real’), but also that it expresses an essentially un-American uneasiness and ontological uncertainty.

Kristine: I guess I see that. The movie could be construed as an attack on intellect, because it depicts the mind as fractured, un-whole (and un-wholesome), unable to constitute itself. The mind is a labyrinth, according to this movie. Not an understandable and explainable system.

Sean: Exactly.  Skal then goes on to explain,

Caligari … shared one honest source of inspiration with the new art movements, namely the Great War just past. The war had a tremendous influence on the expressionist, dadaist, and emerging surrealist artists during the 1920s….art historian Sidra Stich links the surrealist preoccupation with deformed and disfigured bodies to the sudden presence, following the war, of a sizable population of the crippled and mutilated.

Kristine: I totally agree with that. This is a standard conversation in art history classes when discussing the Surrealists and Dadaists – that these movements were a reaction to the war and also to the processes of industrialization. This reminds me of the grotesqueries in Jacob’s Ladder, which similarly centers itself on the fallout of a war where individuals have been sacrificed, but for obscure and vaguely nefarious reasons.

Sean: I need a primer on Dada. I’ve never really understood it. What is it?

Kristine: I can give you my take on the key traits of Dadaism. 1. They were anti-authority, as exhibited through being outrageous, ignoring social mores, basically being mischievous art brats. The motivation for their rebelliousness is probably, as you pointed out, a negative reaction to the War and to authority figures in general – including art world stalwarts. 2. They were all about creating & displaying art outside of the ivory towers of galleries, museums and art schools. 3. They created art out of non-precious, non-traditional materials. 4. They refused to associate meaning or narrative with art and insisted their work was nonsensical and meaningless, even though we have established that, in fact, it was pure meaning. So, in total, they were about Chaos over order and intuition over rationalization. Which is startlingly close to one of the common themes we’ve observed in horror cinema, right? Nature versus Society. Female intuition versus rational masculine authority.

A surrealist Gothic moment

Sean: So, what are the Dadaist elements of Caligari?

Kristine: Definitely the refusal to “make sense,” from the puzzle of whether Dr. Caligari is good or evil to the basic uncertainty around what is real and what is delusion or fantasy. The architecture of the movie is also Dadaist. All the crazy rooms with slanted floors and impossible proportions, which is a visual joke that underscores how ridiculous authority/bureaucracy is (I’m thinking of those high stools again, which one presumes the officers use because it makes them taller and more authoritative, but in actuality infantilizes them and renders them ridiculous). And perhaps most significantly, that Cesare is living in this perpetual state of alternate consciousness, and only in this state is he able to know the answers, the Truth. So, the Truth is impossible to have in the “real” world, it does not exist here. That is my take, anyway. And the Dadaists say, since there is no truth or meaning to this world, let’s be ridiculous and create art that reflects that lack of meaning/truth.

Sean: Have we watched anything else that embodies the Dada manifesto?

Kristine: The example that jumps to mind is Von Trier’s Antichrist, because it combines the horror of Nature/Chaos with something that is bonkers and weird and makes you laugh despite your distaste for what’s happening – like the talking fox, et. al. What flows underneath the plot is an undercurrent of deep distrust. So deep it extends past other people to the very space you inhabit and your own being and memories. And that is super scary, right? Jacob’s Ladder, again.

Sean: Right, right. Does Caligari feel like a hdogepodge of Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. and, thus, not actually original? Or does it feel like something with its own distinct artistic mindset?

Kristine: I really didn’t think about the movie’s relationship to those art movements while I was watching, other than noting how the visuals reflected familiar aesthetics, like Cubism.

If I were Cesare, I’d be upset about that portrait

Sean: Yeah, I didn’t think about art movements very much either. But I did think a lot about psychoanalysis. The whole milieu of the film relies upon the psychoanalytic – from the doctor/hypnotist figure of Caligari, to the prologue and epilogue set in the asylum to the constantly shifting narratives around who is “crazy” and who is not, who is a legitimate “doctor” and who is not. Even the artistic style, as we’ve been discussing, is about subjectivity and lack of coherence – the design is meant to suggest dreams, memory, impressions and a subjective experience of the world. It is not ordered, but disordered, with all the strange angles and wilted perspectives. It is interesting how the movie is all about how the mind either works or does not work, and what the mind is or is not. This connects to the modernist and meta- elements of the movie. How the movie is really about layers of narrative lain over other layers of narrative.

Kristine: I agree. It’s Alice in Wonderland – through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole.

Sean: It is murky about what is the “real” narrative and what is the “false” narrative. For example, the way that they find that diary of Caligari’s in which he describes finding old historical records of a medieval cleric named Caligari and becomes obsessed with recreating that narrative for himself. First off, that’s both very Borgesian and very Lovecraftian – two “weird fiction” writers whose stories often revolve around fictional texts that indicate an older, mythic history or knowledge that has been lost.

Kristine: Right, so one of the only ways to tap into that lost history is through our sleeping or subconscious minds. Á la The Resonator.

Sean: Exactly. But it also exposes the fact that the present Caligari is a fiction, a persona created and adopted in order to try to connect with a lost history. The textual bodies in Caligari point to a repressed/lost past that is fighting to surface – like the subterranean dungeons in The Phantom of the Opera that represent a Gothic past hiding just under the surface of the modern. The trope of the sleepwalker seems to be a way of accessing the deep unconscious, which in Caligari becomes downright supernatural, with Caligari’s claims that Cesare can see the past and future because of his mental state/dream-consciousness (like you were discussing earlier). The medieval Caligari (the old mystic from the historical record) was all about proving his power by turning someone else into his automaton/slave. So, the Caligari we meet in the film (who is a ‘false’ Caligari, a modern man who has reinvented himself as this historical figure) is also motivated by a thirst for power. But in his case, it is the power to recreate what the real/original Caligari did.

Kristine: What did you make of Caligari’s intense grief when Cesare dies? It’s a father mourning his son, right? Even though Caligari kept Cesare in this non-human state, profited off of him, and made him kill.

Sean: The dynamics between Caligari and Cesare are perverse and multi-layered: father/son, doctor/patient, artist/art object. That grief we see – is it “real”? Or is the mad scientist’s frustration at a failed experiment? And anyways, who is to say that a father’s grief for his lost child is more authentic and real than the mad scientist’s grief as a failed experiment?

The Bad Daddy confronts his dead son/experiment/art object

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Also, this connects to your earlier points about the movie’s relationship to the rise of fascism. The idea that the power-mad leader’s lunacy is only apparent when he is losing control of the people. Or something…

Kristine: OMG, it is totally Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie. Now I am dying.

Sean: Good call. Yeah, it is all about “fathering” a living doll/living art object in order to demonstrate your power.

Kristine: God, I cannot think of something I would enjoy less than having a fucking zombie around that I was responsible for. No thanks

Sean: Well, you’re not a power-mad patriarch/rapist.

Kristine: So, do you have an opinion about psychoanalysis? Do you think it is possible to tap into lost thoughts/memories/instincts when in a half-wake/half-sleep (some would argue half-dead, half-alive)? Do you think some sort of innate human knowledge resides dormant in our brains that could potentially be tapped/released? And if so, would it make us more “human”, or more base, more in touch with our animal selves?

Sean: This is all very From Beyond right now.

Kristine: Answer, or I’ll put you in leather bondage gear and strap you into a medieval torture device.

Sean: I believe that the mind is a series of layers or spaces, some of which are accessible and some of which are repressed. Sure, I think we could access some of those repressed spaces with the right trigger.

Kristine: Like… red wine?

Sean: Yeah, and orgies. I mean, Caligari is a pretty psychedelic movie in that sense.

Kristine: Next time someone gives me static about boozing and slutting it up, I am going to tell them I am trying to access the essential essence of humanity that society has forced my brain to repress!

Modern dancers beware

Sean: For sure. The “horror” of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is really the horror of (a) being controlled/being brainwashed and (b) being lost inside layers of indistinguishable reality (i.e. being crazy). Pretty timeless anxieties.

Kristine: Totally timeless.

Sean: Let me ask you this:  Are there any effective “horror” moments in Caligari? Are there any images that still have the power to shock, unnerve or unsettle a modern viewer?

Kristine: Yes. The “unveiling” of Cesare, as you already mentioned. I personally find spaces that are incongruous to be really unnerving and claustrophobic. That creepy carnival rape-trailer. All the jagged edges everywhere. How can you ever relax and feel safe if your physical surroundings are menacing you?

Sean: Right. One could ask that same question about living in the Arizona desert. With Arizona lawmakers in power.

Kristine: One could indeed.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND It’s always about the Nazis

The Freak’s Rating: Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND It’s always about the Nazis AND Stylistic triumph


3 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari] (1920)

  1. I recently saw the sound remake. An interesting, more approachable experiment (for modern audiences), but with a definite loss of power from the original.

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