Dr. Caligari and American Culture

The period from 1900-1930 was an exciting and experimental time in the history of cinema. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exemplifies the spirit of this era because of how it pushed the boundaries of genre, art, and culture. Dr. Caligari is a German film, directed by Robert Wiene, starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt. It was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, produced by Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer, and released on February 26, 1920. The movie’s release was well timed, as foreign film industries had just begun to ease restrictions on the import of German films after World War I. The film was marketed extensively leading up to its release, and was met with critical and commercial success. At the time, this film was truly a cutting-edge piece of artistic cinema, especially in the young horror genre. Today, Dr. Caligari is known universally as a revolutionary work of cinema; back then, opinions were probably more divided because of how new and different the film was. However, it was still very popular and well received by critics and audiences alike.

Some of the most unique features of Dr. Caligari are the set designs, music, and cinematography. These features are what really set the film apart as having pushed the boundaries of art and film. Stylistically, the visuals are dark, twisted, and bizarre. Set pieces create radical distortions in form, dimension and scale, leaving a chaotic and unhinged appearance. Roger Ebert described it as “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives.” The visual style of Dr. Caligari conveys a sense of anxiety and terror to the viewer, giving the impression of a nightmare. The boldness of these features are what elevate this film as a quintessential piece of expressionist cinema.

Using a cultural lens, I think Dr. Caligari highlights American culture’s longstanding fascination with mental illness — which is part of the reason why it was met with success here, even following WWI. In America (and the rest of the world), society has had a tenuous relationship with the concept of mental health. Throughout history, mental illness has not been viewed in a positive light. Although we’ve made huge progress in taking care of the mentally ill, we still have trouble with stigma surrounding mental illness. The deranged scientist and the maniacal serial killer have long been tropes of the horror genre. I would argue, however, that American horror has taken a special interest and favor to these types of monsters, and uniquely influenced their depictions in culture, from Scream to Shutter Island.

In Monster Theory, Cohen argues that the monster is a “harbinger of category crisis,” meaning part of its allure lies in the fact that it can’t accurately be classified (ex: Ridley Scott’s Alien having features of multiple animal classes). In Dr. Caligari, we’re faced with multiple twists at the end of the movie that blur the line between sanity and insanity, and the viewer has difficulty knowing just who or what to trust. In my view, that’s what this film communicates about American culture – that we both fear the things we don’t understand, and we are simultaneously engrossed by them. Mental illness is such a complex subject that it often defies classification in everyday life. This film centers around psychedelia and insanity, and is often referred to as the first “psychological” horror film. It’s a movie that plays with the viewer’s mind, through both style and story. In American culture, we love a good mind game; especially, it seems, when there’s death or dismemberment involved. 3_11_cvr11_caligari_ph6