Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Fig. 1 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster
Sporting sharp, jagged angled landscapes, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, follows a man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) as he tells a stranger his story. However, all is not what it appears to be. Robert Wiene has created the general structure that has, undoubtably, been the inspiration behind many films that follow some form of delusion. Shutter Island comes to mind, following an almost exact script of plot direction. 

Francis, a delusional man whose past is unclear but speculative, tells a story in which he is personified to be the hero and Dr. Caligari to be the villain. With such distorted view of the past it could be that Cesare, when portrayed in the story, is Francis' dark personality. Thus explaining the first of three murders, since Francis and Alan were in a contest for Jane's hand in marriage. Such details are not explained, but can only be interpreted. Just one of the many traits of this film.
Fig. 2 Dr. Caligari and Cesare
With strong, sharp edges, blades of grass, tilted windows, walls and staircases, this film stands out, not because of it's age, but with it's unique set design. As Roger Ebert put it, 'the visual environment plays like a wilderness of blades; the effect is to deny the characters any place of safety or rest' (Ebert, 2009), commenting on the design as it compliments the story. The loss of perspective in the set design, is a plot point that Robert Wiene uses as a visual aid. The setting 'squeeze and turn and adjust the eye and through the eye the mentality' (variety staff, 1919). With Francis losing all sense of perception of the world around him, being locked in a tight-enclosed room, it is only right that he has lost all perception of reality. 

Fig. 3 Cesare carrying Jane
Robert Wiene has portrayed delusion, deception and madness in a brillant manner that has inspired many directors to follow in suite. It has such an apt use 'of the medium as it existed in the first quarter of the 20th century that it is difficult to imagine the film done better with the benefit of sound, colour, or any innovation since' (Hilditch, 2007).This inspirational piece has become a standing point, and nothing could visually depict a loss of perception and distrotion better than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Figure 1. Robert Wiene (1920) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster. At:,0,214,317_.jpg
Figure 2. Robert Wiene (1920) Dr. Caligari and Cesare. At:
Figure 3. Robert Wiene (1920) Cesare carrying Jane. At:

Roger Ebert (2009) Roger Ebert. At:
Variety staff (1919) Variety. At:
Nick Hilditch (2007) BBC. At:


  1. The setting 'squeeze and turn and adjust the eye and through the eye the mentality' (variety staff, 1918).

    Not sure I understand this sentence - and I don't understand the citation - 1918? Does this date from before the release of the film in 1920? I'm confused!

  2. I'll mend the sentence soon. Also I was a bit confused about the date as well, but I just assumed that they had seen an early copy. And the date was: 31st December 1918 11:00. There was also a citation below the review stating the extract was from 1919, so I altered the date to that instead.