Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari: On the Origins of German Expressionist Cinema

Written by Meenakshi Nirmalan

German Expressionism is an artistic movement that emerged in the early twentieth century. The movement focused on expressing the inner fears and disturbances of the psyche, visually translated via exterior means. In 1916, the German government banned foreign films, and this subsequently led to a rise in films being made in Germany. German Expressionist cinema reached its peak in the 1920s and has a distinctly nightmarish aesthetic, achieved through the mise-en-scène. 

Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari is a silent film directed by Robert Wiene in 1920. It is a quintessential piece of German Expressionist cinema, and many consider it one of the first true horror films. The film utilises a frame narrative, opening with Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounting an earlier incident in his life. This flashback explores the story of Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), who arrives with Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist, under Caligari’s control. In the town, Caligari sets up a stall, with Cesare as his exhibit; Cesare is woken from his slumber on Caligari’s order and answers questions from the audience, who ask him to predict future events. A series of murders are committed by Cesare, whilst under hypnosis. After Cesare is unable to kill Francis’ fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover), he decides to kidnap her instead. As a result of this, Caligari tries to flee, but Francis follows him into an insane asylum, of which Caligari is the director. By the end of the film, the narrative returns to the present; unexpectedly, Francis is depicted as a patient at the asylum and Caligari exclaims that he hopes to cure him. This blurs the lines between sanity and insanity, fusing together reality and surrealism, as the audience is uncertain as to which narrative perspective is the most reliable.  

The set design is effective at capturing not only the inner conditions of the individual mind, but also the collective sense of unease and disquiet following the First World War. Roger Ebert called it a “jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives”, which highlights the disorientating nature of the film. Wiene uses a painted set, depicting an idyllic Germanic town. However, the props are disproportionate; the doors and windows jut out at oblique angles; the use of chiaroscuro lighting, with stark contrasts in black and white, creates uncomfortable shadows. These elements work together to create the convoluted, other-worldly aesthetic associated with German Expressionism, portraying a simultaneous abandonment and exaggeration of realism. The set design, combined with the piercing, aurally oblique music score serve not only as a haunting reflection of the First World War but also an eerie foreshadowing of the events to follow, in the Second World War.  

Werner Krauss in Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920). Allstar Picture Library: SAL46731. Accessed via the British Library.

Many critics, including Siegfried Kracauer, have argued that Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari examines the theme of irrational authority figures. In Kracauer’s book, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, he explores the notion of a collective subconscious need in German society for a tyrant figure. Kracauer writes how “the Germans of the time—a people still unbalanced, still free to choose its regime—nursed no illusions about the possible consequences of tyranny; on the contrary, they indulged in detailing its crimes and the sufferings it inflicted”. This demonstrates a potential subconscious yearning for perceived stability in times of turbulence. Kracauer goes on to describe “the German soul, haunted by the alternative images of tyrannic rule and instinct-governed chaos, threatened by doom on either side, tossed about in gloomy space”, highlighting the bleak nature of post-World War One Germany and the desperation of the citizens, thus demonstrating that German Expressionist cinema was the ideal outlet for this sentiment. Moreover, it can be argued that the somnambulistic nature of Cesare reflects how German society was more susceptible to being influenced by mass thought-control, due to the desperation for stability in the aftermath of the First World War. Kracauer describes the “craving for a spiritual shelter which possessed the young, the intellectuals”, reflecting how Cesare is a figure of submission.  

Moreover, when Francis proposes to Jane, she responds by saying: “We who are of noble blood may not follow the wishes of our hearts”. This phrase has a double meaning, as it could also allude to how the citizens are confined to the wishes of tyrannical and the totalitarian regime. In addition, the title of the film, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, is interesting to note. The idea of a “cabinet” amplifies the feeling of claustrophobic entrapment and the fact that Cesare is contained in the cabinet at Caligari’s discretion. Cesare only leaves this confined space whilst being hypnotised by Caligari to undertake his bidding, which underlines the inner turmoil and suffocation, caused by an autocratic dictatorship. German Expressionist cinema provides an ideal outlet for the exploration of a nightmarish society in the period between the two World Wars, where the brutality of authority and the anxiety manifested in society are examined. 


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Featured image credit: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), MUBI (https://mubi.com/films/the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari).

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