The Cabinet of Dr. Calibri


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, and Friedrich Feher, is a German expressionist film directed by Robert Wiene. It was released in 1920 and the screenplay and story was written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. I mainly analyzed this film from the lens of time. At the time of release, World War I had just recently ended and Hollywood was transforming into a more artistic and accepting industry. Radio began being broadcasted, allowing people to listen to films and television shows. The idea of the Occult, while still controversial, encouraged people to explore new and unique things and stray away from traditional practices. This era stood at the entrance to the beginning of horror movies that are a huge part of American culture today. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first movies identified as apart of the, then new, horror genre and played a role in the broadening of creative freedom in American culture.

The cinematography in this film symbolized the atmosphere in Germany following World War I, dark and unsettling. The 1920s were a difficult time for Germany because they were in large economic debt from the Treaty of Versailles and had just recently changed their government structure. The dark lighting used throughout the entire movie, accompanied by loud, dramatic music, set the tone for the film and contributed to the ultimately “creepy” atmosphere.

The film is thought of as one of the most important films when it comes to the horror genre. Viewers have referred to it as a “masterpiece” because of its use of advanced cinematography. The complex lighting, intense music, and strategic use of shadows all inspired filmmakers to step outside of the box when it came to making films. Although a classic, it currently isn’t as popular in modern, technological society because it is a silent film. However, for those studying American film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligri, is a must-see because of the advanced film techniques that reviewers have described “as way before its time.”

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins in Holstenwall, Germany, featuring a young man, Francis, in a flashback.  The flashback begins at a fair that the couple attended with their friend Alan. They encounter a strange man, known as Caligari, who presents to them a man, Cesari, who is  thought to have been sleeping for over twenty years and was laying in an upright coffin. Caligari drew attention to his tent by promising that Cesare, the somnambulist, could predict the day one would die. The three friends arrived at this tent and Alan was told by Cesare that he would be killed the next morning. Alan was then found dead the next morning, fulfilling Cesare’s prophecy. Shocked at this occurrence and suspicious of other recent murders, Francis and others began to regularly observe Caligari It isn’t until the end of the film, when Francis assumes that Caligari is responsible for this behavior and arrives at the asylum to see if Caligari was a patient suffering from mental illness. Shockingly, Caligari is found to be the director of the asylum who had been controlling Cesare and others and planning the consistent murders that had taken place in the German town. Dr. Caligari goes manic at this accusation and becomes confined in his own institution. The film ends with Francis’s ending of his flashback and it is revealed that Alan, Francis, and Francis’s fiancé were all patients in the institution.


Dr. Calibri’s “henchman,” Cesari,” symbolizes Cohen’s idea of the monster that he introduces in his Monster Theory. Cohen defines the monster as being “born at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place (Cohen, 2).” Taking place at the end of World War I, Germany was at a “crossroads,” it was a time of unrest and discomfort. Cesari, who is thought to symbolize the soldiers during World War I, embodied the “fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy” that all were apart of what a monster was thought to possess. Cesari was showed as living in a coffin and was thought to have been asleep for 23 years, which symbolized a vampire or other monster figure. His predictions of death, killing of Alan, and attempted abduction of Francis’s fiancé, portrays the anxiety and fear both him and the master planner, Dr. Calibri, inflicted on those in the small German towns, similar to the anxiety and fear prevalent in Germany at that time. Although Cesari didn’t appear as we would imagine a monster, his character symbolized the behavior Cohen described of a monster. Weine’s use of a monster figure combined with fantasy, mystery, and post World War I history set the stage for horror movies in American culture and legitimized the harsh reality that life is nowhere near perfect, now a common theme in American film.


Note: I hyperlinked my sources!!