Monday, 21 October 2013

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Review

Fig 1: "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" Poster

"The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" is a 1920 German silent movie directed by Robert Wiene and is considered one of the greatest silent horror films created. The plot of "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" revolves squarely around two of the main characters in the film, the first being Francis who is the protagonist of the tale and the second is Dr Caligari who appears to be the antagonist. The design of these characters is interesting in itself as Dr Caligari is portrayed as a absolute fiend, secretly murdering whoever he wishes with the sleepwalker/somnambulist Casare, slithering around the films environments and fooling everyone with his 'act' as the head doctor of an asylum. This contrasts greatly with the characteristics of the lead protagonist who is portrayed as having a strong sense of justice, smarter than the authorities and a shrewd detective as he figures out Dr Caligari's real identity. These two designs are so simplistic in their portrayal of their respective characters that it can even appear as if the film is a child's book with the battle between a hero and a villain that contrast each other completely and show no blurring to whether they are good or evil. "None of them can quite be believed, nor can they believe one another." (Ebert 2009) The way Ebert describes Wiene's characters could not be more apt, the design is so simplistic and flat, with little beyond their exterior shell that could be considered a personality but this is done purposefully so as to encourage them to be unbelievable to the audience.

Fig 2: Rooftop chase scene

The set design of the film mirrors this theme of the unbelievable with its quirky layout and architecture that takes heavy influence from German expressionism as a way of portraying the twisted and warped emotional state of the protagonist and his unstable mentality. The way Wiene has faithfully reproduced the artists vision lends aid to the unbelievable factor of the films main plot and characters, as they glide through their unnatural landscape completely accustomed by its warped shape. "Robert Wiene has made perfect use of settings designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Roehrig, settings that squeeze and turn and adjust the eye and through the eye the mentality." (Variety Staff 2006) This quotation above highlights specifically how the quirky sets twist and change the audiences viewing of film considerably and are used specifically to do so. The sets may have been cheaper to use then their realistic counterparts, but as the ending twist to the film suggests, they set the tone, mood for this surprise ending to really explain the purpose and meaning behind the use of such sets.

Fig 3: Jane visits Dr Caligari's Tent

The scene shown above is the scene when the female lead, Jane, visits Dr Caligari's tent in search of Francis and her father. This is a eerie and frightening scene within the film as Wiene stretches out the encounter and Cesare's awakening to build a sense of agonising suspense, which is only heightened by Jane's flailing and overly dramatic reactions. "The narrative frame creates ambiguities that hold certain elements of the story in disturbing suspension" (Rosenbaum 2007) The pure fact that the film is silent is what allows this painful suspense and fright to grow and develop as the audience must watch both murder and kidnapping take place without a sound, the frightening horror as the other characters rush to aid the assailed individual but, despite their visual desperation and emotional state, they cannot help and they themselves must watch with the audience Dr Caligari scheming and Cesare's murderous streak grow while powerless to stop it, and it is this sense of powerlessness that captures the audiences breathes, from 1920 to now, again and again.

List of Illustrations:

Fig 1: "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari" poster (1920) At:

Fig 2: Rooftop chase scene from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Directed by Robert Wiene, At:

Fig 3: Jane Visits Dr Caligari's Tent scene from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Directed by Robert Wiene, At:


Ebert, Roger (2009) (Online Review) Accessed 21/10/13

Variety Staff (2006) (Online Review) Accessed 21/10/13

Rosenbaum, Jonathan (2007) (Online Review) Accessed 21/10/13


  1. Hi Kyle, another interesting review- well done! What is going on with the white highlighting, though??

    Just doublecheck your bibliography referencing again - you are almost there! You need certain parts in italics, and in the illustrations list, you need the medium, so for example [Film still]. Also, if taken from the film, the place of production and the production company.

  2. Sorry about the white highlighting, I didn't even realise it was doing it! :D