Monday, 24 October 2011

Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

 Fig. 1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari poster.

Though to jaded twenty-first century filmgoers The Cabinet of Dr Caligari may seem dull and hackneyed, in 1920 it revolutionised cinema. It ushered in the concept of unreliable narration and presented the first filmic example of a twist ending, as well as defining the horror genre.

It is “a film of delusions and deceptive appearances, about madmen and murder, and his characters exist at right angles to reality. None of them can quite be believed, nor can they believe one another” (Ebert, ). In terms of production design, the sets are bizarre and uncanny. Everything is made of paper, there is not a right angle in sight and wild patterns cover everything without any apparent logic to them. Shadows are painted onto the sets, creating a disconnect between the characters and their surroundings. At the end of the film we are shown that the entire story was the raving of a madman, retroactively explaining the aesthetic. The fiercely jagged lines and sharp points evoke and add to the narrative, suggesting that Holstenwall (the town in which the film is set) is dangerous, perhaps the result of the protagonist’s paranoia.

Fig 2. Caligari in Holstenwall still.

The famous twist ending can be interpreted in two ways; firstly, one could see it as a groundbreaking piece of innovation, albeit one insisted upon by the film’s executives; alternatively, it could be seen as a watering-down of the film’s impact, explaining away the mad scenery that could have represented the world’s confusion and disarray in the wake of the Great War, and how it seemed that the very structure of the world had shifted, rather than the imaginings of a madman – “instead of being a worldview that a viewer is forced to adjust to, it is one that is now explained away with the safety net of only being a madman’s delusion, not unakin to the old “It was all a dream” ending” (Scheib, 1999).

Fig. 3. Cesare and Jane still.

Apparently the twist ending was never the writer’s intention; it “appalled the original writers, as it was never their intention to portray Dr. Caligari in a kindlier light” (Richter, 2000). The original script, without the framing device, was the result of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer’s (the film’s writers) dislike of authority at the time. Mayer had suffered at the hands of a bigoted military psychiatrist, and wanted to show the public the darker side of the psychiatric profession. Nevertheless, the film is widely celebrated for its ending, and ultimately it is up to the viewer to decide whether it is an act of genius or terrible executive meddling.

Illustration List
Wiene, R. (1920) Figure 1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari poster.  (Accessed on 24/10/11)
Wiene, R. (1920) Figure 2. Caligari in Holstenwall still.
cabinet-of-dr.-caligari-screenshot.jpg  (Accessed on 24/10/11)
Wiene, R. (1920) Figure 3. Cesare and Jane still. (Accessed on 24/10/11)

Ebert, R. (2009) (Accessed on 24/10/11)
Richter, I. (2000) (Accessed on 24/10/11)
Scheib, R. (1999). Moria Science Fiction, Horror & Fantasy Review. (Accessed on 24/10/11)


  1. and so it begins with another entertaining review clearly born of some wider reading! Just a few notes though, Meg - one, give your posts titles please (as Untitled - as it appears on my dashboard) always looks a bit shoddy, and also can you please put your quotes in italics please!

  2. Ah fish, I swore I titled this one. And will do!