Home > films and reviews > The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).                

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).                

Known in film history as the best example of German Expressionist movement, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari utilized mise en scene to create a visual representation of the psychological themes in the film, thus highlighting the power of the visual form to relay content.  The film’s creative team include Erich Pommer of UFA as producer, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz as scriptwriters, and Robert Wiene as the director, plus the acting team of Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari) and Conrad Veidt (Cesare).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is most remembered for its dark, bizarre, and crooked geometric patterns that take over the screen throughout the movie; creating a sinister and unrealistic looking world painted as backdrop to a murder mystery plot that is more than what it seems. The film’s central theme is the brutal and irrational authority to unconditional obedience, as exemplified by the power of the mountebank-Dr. Caligari who commands the somnambulist-Cesare, the patients he sees, and the fate of the townspeople of Holstenwall. A mise-en-scene analysis reveals unique visuals that dominate the landscape of the town of Holstenwall.   These include jagged edges, crooked lines, and whirls of spiraling patterns that create the impression on chaos, illusion, and a sense of wrong-doing.  Roberts (2009) discussed how the repeating circular elements in the film, exemplified by carousels in the fair scenes, cyclical movement of townsfolks and the characters in the visual space, and the many circular patterns in the painted backdrop, are as equally important. He believes they symbolize the cyclical mental state of the innocent Franzis’ deranged mind (Roberts, 2009). Roberts (2009) also stipulates that they are clues to the film’s circular frame narrative that the omniscient viewer sees progresses from the prologue, flashbacks, and epilogues which was considered innovative at its time.

Dr. Caligari’s wicked looking costume and menacing expression, Cesare’s blank and de-humanized stare, and other acting style similar to theatrical expressionistic pantomime-like mimicry all strengthen the visual representation of the characters in this film.  The film also utilized “circular iris swipes” that attempts to capture the film’s melodramatic moments. Roberts (2009) sees them as mis-en-scene tools used to intentionally link scenes together (signaling flashbacks) or they may simply be a common technique during its time.  Though dark tones are predominantly used in the film, the scenes were significantly brighter prior to the 1st mysterious death of the town clerk. The change in lighting from this point towards the darker tones ceremoniously signals the onset of a series of unfortunate events. The use of space in the movie disorienting, repetitive, and fails to make any logical sense– all of which are utilized as expressionistic symbols to the confusing mindscape of the film’s characters. Another symbolic use of space is the stairway towards the police headquarters and the high chair occupied by the town clerk. Both seem to indicate the separation between figures of authority and the people. These may represent their higher prestige which is typically couples with indifference to the plight of common folks. The sound montage used throughout the movie is appropriate to its plot and it helps function as narrative cues, signaling riveting actions, mysterious twists, and overdramatic moments.

Ebert (2009) mentions that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is regarded by some as the first horror movie made. The film also has some controversy surrounding it, with discussions among historians on how it influenced Nazism in Germany (Ebert, 2009).  But controversy and debates aside, the film remains a critical element in the study of German silent films. Ebert (2009) discusses that the international success of this film fueled the birth of several other Expressionist works such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, M, and the American film noir genre. Its importance in the history of cinema is undeniable.


Corrigan, T. A Short guide to writing about films. 8th edition. Glenview: Pearson. 2012. Print.

Ebert, R. (2009). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920

Roberts, I (2004). Caligari Revisited: Circles, Cycles and Counter-Revolution of Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari. German Life & Letters. doi.10.1111/j.0016-877.2004.0278x.

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