Watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the Influential German Expressionist Film (1920)

Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari

In ear­ly 1920, posters began appear­ing all over Berlin with a hyp­not­ic spi­ral and the mys­te­ri­ous com­mand Du musst Cali­gari wer­den — “You must become Cali­gari.”

The posters were part of an inno­v­a­tive adver­tis­ing cam­paign for an upcom­ing movie by Robert Wiene called The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari. When the film appeared, audi­ences were mes­mer­ized by Wiene’s sur­re­al tale of mys­tery and hor­ror. Almost a cen­tu­ry lat­er, The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari is still cel­e­brat­ed for its rare blend­ing of low­brow enter­tain­ment and avant-garde art. It is fre­quent­ly cit­ed as the quin­tes­sen­tial cin­e­mat­ic exam­ple of Ger­man Expres­sion­ism, with its dis­tort­ed per­spec­tives and per­va­sive sense of dread.

Like many night­mares, Cali­gari had its ori­gin in real-life events. Screen­writer Hans Janowitz had been walk­ing late one night through a fair in Ham­burg’s red-light dis­trict when he heard laugh­ter. Turn­ing, he saw an attrac­tive young woman dis­ap­pear behind some bush­es in a park. A short time lat­er a man emerged from the shad­ows and walked away. The next morn­ing, Janowitz read in the news­pa­pers that a young woman match­ing the descrip­tion of the one he had seen had been mur­dered overnight at that very loca­tion.

Haunt­ed by the inci­dent, Janowitz told the sto­ry to fel­low writer Carl May­er. Togeth­er they set to work writ­ing a screen­play based on the inci­dent, draw­ing also on May­er’s unset­tling expe­ri­ence with a psy­chi­a­trist. They imag­ined a strange, bespec­ta­cled man named Dr. Cali­gari who arrives in a small town to demon­strate his pow­ers of hyp­no­tism over Cesare, a sleep walk­er, at the local fair. A series of mys­te­ri­ous mur­ders fol­lows.

Janowitz and May­er sold their screen­play to Erich Pom­mer at Decla-Film. Pom­mer at first want­ed Fritz Lang to direct the film, but Lang was busy with anoth­er project, so he gave the job to Wiene. One of the most crit­i­cal deci­sions Pom­mer made was to hire Expres­sion­ist art direc­tor Her­mann Warm to design the pro­duc­tion, along with painters Wal­ter Reimann and Wal­ter Röhrig. As R. Bar­ton Palmer writes at Film Ref­er­ence:

The prin­ci­ple of War­m’s con­cep­tion is the Expres­sion­ist notion of Bal­lung, that crys­tal­liza­tion of the inner real­i­ty of objects, con­cepts, and peo­ple through an artis­tic expres­sion that cuts through and dis­cards a false exte­ri­or. War­m’s sets for the film cor­re­spond­ing­ly evoke the twists and turn­ings of a small Ger­man medieval town, but in a patent­ly unre­al­is­tic fash­ion (e.g., streets cut across one anoth­er at impos­si­ble angles and paths are impos­si­bly steep). The roofs that Cesare the som­nam­bu­list cross­es dur­ing his night­time depre­da­tions rise at unlike­ly angles to one anoth­er, yet still afford him pas­sage so that he can reach his vic­tims. In oth­er words, the world of Cali­gari remains “real” in the sense that it is not offered as an alter­na­tive one to what actu­al­ly exists. On the con­trary, War­m’s design is meant to evoke the essence of Ger­man social life, offer­ing a pen­e­trat­ing cri­tique of semi­of­fi­cial author­i­ty (the psy­chi­a­trist) that is soft­ened by the addi­tion of a fram­ing sto­ry. As a prac­tic­ing artist with a deep com­mit­ment to the polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al pro­gram of Expres­sion­ism, Warm was the ide­al tech­ni­cian to do the art design for the film, which bears out War­m’s famous man­i­festo that “the cin­e­ma image must become an engrav­ing.”

The screen­writ­ers were dis­ap­point­ed with Wiene’s deci­sion to frame the sto­ry as a flash­back told by a patient in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal. Janowitz, in par­tic­u­lar, had meant Cali­gari to be an indict­ment of the Ger­man gov­ern­ment that had recent­ly sent mil­lions of men to kill or be killed in the trench­es of World War I. “While the orig­i­nal sto­ry exposed author­i­ty,” writes Siegfried Kra­cauer in From Cali­gari to Hitler: A Psy­cho­log­i­cal His­to­ry of the Ger­man Film, “Wiene’s Cali­gari glo­ri­fied author­i­ty and con­vict­ed its antag­o­nist of mad­ness. A rev­o­lu­tion­ary film was thus turned into a con­formist one — fol­low­ing the much-used pat­tern of declar­ing some nor­mal but trou­ble­some indi­vid­ual insane and send­ing him to a lunatic asy­lum.”

In a pure­ly cin­e­mat­ic sense, of course, The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari remains a rev­o­lu­tion­ary work. You can watch the com­plete film above. Or find it list­ed in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Fritz Lang’s M: Watch the Restored Ver­sion of the Clas­sic 1931 Film

Metrop­o­lis Restored: Watch a New Ver­sion of Fritz Lang’s Mas­ter­piece

Watch the Quin­tes­sen­tial Vam­pire Film Nos­fer­atu

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  • David Bartlett says:

    Excel­lent arti­cle! I am a film­mak­er and a big fan of Cali­gari and the oth­er Ger­man Expres­sion­ist films. I saw the excel­lent Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Film show at the LA Coun­ty Art Muse­um a few years ago and this arti­cle remind­ed me of that amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, and how impor­tant this film is. Every sur­re­al, hor­ror, thriller, drug induced film and expose’ on the dam­age psy­chi­a­try can do owes it’s ori­gins to this film. Thank you, and I look for­ward to more!

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