There is a strange yet poignant compression of time and space inherent to the experience of watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) in 2020. Re-experiencing the film alone on my couch, the spectral images are shrunken to fit a laptop screen and the score travels a circuitous route through the cords of a headphone set to meet my ears alone. Such a personal, almost miniaturized, engagement with the film seems entirely removed from the chaotic, vibrant Berlin where the film premiered, in the grandiose, marble-fronted Marmorhaus theatre, a century ago. At the same time, there is an intimacy to watching the film by myself, proximity to these diminutive phantoms that makes them and their world seem so near, so tangible. The technology that facilitates my ability to watch this film whenever I please in the silence of my home is still comparatively new, just as the medium of film was still stumbling through its fitful infancy when Caligari was produced. Viewing Caligari, one feels the excitement of filmmakers and performers eagerly experimenting with a new art form. Scenes regularly open with an iris-in that gives the impression of an eye-opening on a particular scenario, the camera pans across a line of actors in a gentle gliding motion, shadows are cast against a wall to create the impression that the viewer is witnessing an event too terrible to be fully represented. The ghosts of the past flicker across the screen etched in light and shadow on a distorted monochrome canvas.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) has left an indelible mark on cinema as an art form. On a surface level, we can trace its influence in the visually arresting Gothicism of Tim Burton’s early films or the dark theatricality of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). Yet, beyond its aesthetic legacy, the specter of Caligari haunts all those films that play in the liminal space between reality and fantasy, dreams and the waking world. Caligari lurks at the heart of the dozens, if not hundreds, of subsequent films whose narratives center on the complex intertwining of dreams and reality: The Wizard of Oz (1939), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Mulholland Drive (2001), Inception (2010). Caligari is, after all, a film preoccupied with the disturbingly permeable boundary that separates our unconscious fantasies from the ostensibly substantive reality that encircles us. It opens with an old man seated on a bench informing his young companion that “Spirits surround us on every side…” This is an apt opening line because the possibility that our world may be spirit-haunted, lacking in substance, or merely a product of our own disordered psyches is a central concern throughout Caligari. The original screenplay, written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, was a strange tale about a young man named Francis who discovers that the director of the local insane asylum has been masquerading as a sinister carnival hypnotist in order to manipulate a sleepwalker into committing murder. The film, as initially conceived, was a damning critique of authority and the madness inherent in the exercise of power (Kracauer 67). When directorial duties fell to Robert Wiene – having originally been assigned to Fritz Lang – Wiene suggested the addition of a framing device in which it is revealed that Francis is in fact a patient in the asylum and the escapade with the villainous Dr Caligari merely a delusion (Kracauer 66). Although both Mayer and Janowitz protested the addition of these scenes, arguing that the construction of the mad doctor as a fantasy figure nullified the anti-authoritarian message of their original script, the new sequences open up an enticing range of alternative interpretations. Mayer and Janowitz may have felt that the revelation of Francis’s madness and the fanaticized nature of Caligari’s narrative stripped the film of its political meaning, however, the introduction of delusion as an explanation for the film’s events forces the viewer to confront the complex relationship between fantasy and reality. In particular, Caligari suggests that the line that separates the realm of fantasy from the mundane world might be more unstable and porous than many of us might like to admit. By consistently undermining this division through the interweaving of dreams and reality Caligari attests to the power of the psyche to remake the world, as well as raising important questions about the role of dreams and illusion in Weimar Germany.
In Dreams: Caligari and Fantasy
When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released on February 26th, 1920, Germany was in the midst of an immense social and political upheaval. The traditionalist, deeply conservative imperial regime that had governed Germany since its unification in the late nineteenth-century collapsed amidst the strains of the First World War and the revolutionary stirrings of soldiers and workers. In November of 1918, the Kaiser abdicated and the conflict came to an end. Yet, the trauma of war and the sudden transformation of social and political life, resulted in a state of psychic tumult in which both the individual and collective consciousness wrestled with new ideas of freedom, chaos, possibility and loss. Subsequent critics have understood this upheaval in a language drawn explicitly from dreams and the unconscious. Film critic Lotte Eisner has written that in the years following the First World War, “The German mind had difficulty in adjusting itself to the collapse of the imperial dream” (9, emphasis added). Emerging from the ruins of war into a new democratic republic must have seemed, to many Germans, like waking from a dream into the dim light of morning. At the same time, however, the new republic, with its increasingly liberal attitudes to sexuality and the explosion of creativity that followed the relaxation of imperial censorship laws, must have appeared like a strange, phantasmagoric hallucination. Where once art and society were carefully controlled by the state, the church, censorship offices and entrenched academic hierarchies, the transformations that followed in the wake of war and revolution enabled art and culture to unspool in an ever broadening ecliptic of potential. Staid bourgeois sensibilities were eroded and major urban centres like Berlin exploded in a cacophony of new sounds and sensations. Phonographs discharged noisy jazz music, clubs and cabarets pulsed with life, neon signs glowed like liquid fire, and cinema screens flickered and blazed in glorious, newly constructed movie palaces. This novel array of sensations further compounded the belief that the new republic existed as an exciting, sensual fantasy. Caligari expertly captures this sense of moving, ineluctably, between fantasy worlds and becoming unmoored amidst a seductive profusion of dreamscapes.
Although many critics have echoed Mayer and Janowitz’s belief that the framing device which sees Francis confined to an asylum at both the start and the end of the film neatly separates Caligari’s narrative into reality (Francis is a madman locked in a psychiatric facility) and fantasy (Francis is the hero who thwarts the evil doctor/hypnotist), the film is in actuality far more complex. Dreams and reality bleed into each other throughout the film, becoming entangled in a hazy delirium. Caligari opens with Francis (Friedrich Fehér) seated beside an old man (Hans Lanser-Rudolf) on a stone bench. The elderly man has finished regaling Francis with a tale about spirits that have driven him from his home and family to his current state of dereliction. Francis then launches into his own tale of tragedy and, as he does, the set design transforms from a relatively mundane, almost realist style to a distorted, fragmented mode of representation. Francis informs his companion that the story takes place in his hometown, Holstenwall. When the scene shifts to that strange, quasi-medieval locale, we see an image of the town rendered in an explicitly unrealistic manner. Holstenwall is a painted set, and when we first glimpse the town, it is as an image painted on canvas. Here, distorted houses and grotesquely distended buildings strain stretch out along the side of a mountain. Flickering upward like pointed flames, they reach towards the gothic cathedral that rests a atop the mountain and dominates the small town. There is no attempt at realism in the portrayal of Holstenwall. Our first impression of the town is something akin to a page in a child’s story book, an introduction that presages the fairy tale-like nature of the story that follows. Within the town itself, an aura of the fantastic persists: buildings lean at precipitous angles, tapering to a point at their rickety rooftops; windows and doors widen and narrow at improbable positions; trees emerge from the ground like clawed, skeletal hands. Largely due to the incredible production design by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, nothing in Holstenwall seems real: even the shadows that engulf the town are largely false, having been created by painting swathes of darks and light colours directly onto the set. The carnival where Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinz v. Twardowski) first encounter the nefarious Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his murderous somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) is equally disjointed. Tents jut out like angular ridges and flags festoon the fairground like jagged, ensnaring teeth.
When Francis discovers that Caligari is in actually the director of the town’s madhouse, he follows the doctor to an asylum whose interior is equally fantastic. Although featuring a more symmetrical design than the erratic, tilted landscape of Holstenwall, the asylum is nevertheless defined by immense arches that lead only to darkness and a floor painted with vertical lines that give the appearance of a demented pinwheel. It is here in the asylum that the boundary between fantasy and reality begins to collapse. For, when Francis returns to the “real world” in which he is a patient in the asylum, the madhouse retains the same psychotic architecture that Francis encountered in his fantasy: the arches lead nowhere and the asylum is dominated by the same alternating light and dark lines. This continuity between fantasy and reality thus suggests that the two realms are not so easily distinguished: dreams and the waking world are tightly interwoven, maybe even inextricable. Similarly, in other sequences mundane reality and fantastic sensibilities meet and merge in an unsettling manner. In the home of Francis’s beloved Jane (Lil Dagover) a surrealistic set, with a painted moon and undulating circular hills, is contrasted with shabby, everyday furniture emblematic of early twentieth-century bourgeois tastes. This intermingling of the fantastic and the mundane creates a confusion between the real world and imagined dreamscapes. Indeed, it is this merging of the two realms that makes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari such a uniquely complex film.
Stephen Sharot notes that dreams were a popular motif in early cinema, particularly around the turn of the century. At a time when most films comprised only a single short reel, dreams were often used to legitimise or explain experiments with special effects and novel scenarios. Thus, a film might begin in the real world, with the dreamer falling asleep, and end with their awakening back to reality. Significantly, these sequences were generally brief, and the dream would occupy the majority of the film’s runtime, providing “the ‘attractions’ of fantasy and illusion through special effects and visual devices” (Sharot 67). Examples of this kind of simplistic dream narrative can be seen in early-novelty films like The Cavalier’s Dream (Edison, 1898), The Artist’s Dream (American Mutoscope and Biograph, 1899) and The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (Edison, Edwin S. Porter, 1906). Caligari, however, attempts something far more ambitious. Not only does it render Francis’s fantasy as a feature length narrative, but by obscuring the border between dreams and waking it forces us to question the veracity of what we are seeing. Anticipating later, notoriously complex works by directors like David Lynch or Ingmar Bergman, Caligari generates a multiplicity of meanings and possibilities. Writing on a series of mid- to late-twentieth-century films that play with dreams and memories – Persona (Bergman, 1967), Three Women (Altman, 1977), Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001) – Ruth Perlmutter argues that these films allow their characters to “shift identities, interchange roles, cross over into a ‘between’ world where reality and imagination converge into hypothetical realms that are scrambled, achronological, and have different outcomes” (128). All the way back in 1920, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was already engaging in a similar play with fantasy, enabling characters to shift identities, interchange roles and inhabit a nebulous space in which imagination and reality overlap, merge and threaten to consume one another.
Expressionism and the Dreamscape of Caligari
Caligari’s unique admixture of reality and fantasy certainly reflects the feeling, prevalent amongst German writers and thinkers of the period, that they had existed within two distinct worlds, both equally fantastic: the conservative, imperial past and the chaotic modernity of the Weimar Republic. However, the seepage of fantasy into everyday life also mirrors some of the central artistic and aesthetic sensibilities of the period. Although Weimar was home to a multiplicity of dynamic artistic movements and intellectual strains, its most enduring legacy may have been its nurturing of Expressionism. In the visual arts, Expressionism can be traced to nineteenth and early twentieth-century artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. However, the movement reached its apex in Germany during the first decades of the twentieth century, where it was divided into distinct schools: Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) and Brücke (Bridge). Despite a myriad of stylistic and philosophical differences, the two groups were united through their commitment to realising subjective, psychological states in ink and paint. Essentially, Expressionist art produced distorted images which, rather than accurately reproducing a subject, deformed it to reflect the artist’s emotions and ideas. As Lotte Eisner explains, Expressionism creates artworks in which “psychic events are exteriorized” (15). Much like Caligari’s amalgamation of fantasy and reality, Expressionist art does not distinguish between subjective mental experiences, like ideas or emotions, and supposedly objective external reality. Instead, emotions and fantasies are projected outward onto the mundane physical world. German Expressionist artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc, George Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz used intense colours, heavy lines, distorted angles and non-naturalistic imagery to evoke inner feelings or mental experiences. In Expressionist cinema, like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, aspects of the mise-en-scène – lighting, costuming, set design, composition – as well as the cinematography deliberately evoke subjective feelings like fear, anxiety, excitement or grief.
Expressionist paintings like Kirchner’s “Königstein with Red Church”, completed just four years before Caligari’s release imbued everyday scenes with a dreamlike quality. Familiar structures – houses and churches – appear in bizarre non-naturalistic shades of blue and pink, trees are rendered like angular daggers, the image of bird overhead becomes immense and monstrous. Likewise, Caligari’s street scenes take the mundane façades of houses and set them at uncanny angles, windows curve and curl as though they might at any moment transform into sinister observing eyes, bridges and archways distend so as to almost ensnare the pedestrians that pass beneath them. In both Caligari and Expressionist visual art we, as viewers, are forced to hesitate between reality and fantasy, external existence and internal emotion, never sure where one ends and the other begins.
“Cesare knows every secret. Cesare knows the past and sees the future.”: The Somnambulist and Weimar Fantasy
While the interweaving of dreams and reality is perhaps most explicitly addressed in the uncertain nature of Francis’s delusion, the character of Cesare is also essential to the Caligari’s exploration of imagination and fantasy. Cesare, is, after all, a fundamentally oneiric creature. When the sleepwalker is first revealed to a group of awed carnival-goers, Dr. Caligari introduces him as “The miraculous Cesare. Twenty-three years old, he has slept for twenty-three years continuously, day and night!” A young man trapped in perpetual slumber, Cesare exists in the liminal space between waking and sleep, life, and death. Sleep and dreams are all he has ever known. Yet, at the same time, Caligari presents the somnambulist as possessing an uncanny knowledge of the real world: “Cesare knows every secret. Cesare knows the past and sees the future.” Again, Cesare is figured as a marginal being, existing here between the past and the future. In this sense, he appears as an archetypal Weimar subject. Awakening from the crumbling imperial dream, he inhabits a world that looks simultaneously to a bright, modern future and a lost, traditionalist past. Moreover, Cesare is emblematic of how the new world ushered in under the comparatively liberal Weimar Republic was both seductive and frightening for its citizens. Lithe and lean, yet also spectral and gaunt, Cesare embodies the allure and anxiety of the Weimar fantasy.
In major urban centres like Berlin the collapse of state and church censorship facilitated the birth of an increasingly creative culture. Art, theatre, music and film became increasingly experimental, probing the boundaries of representation and undercutting deeply ingrained taboos. At the same time, social reforms set about transforming the cultural arena by allowing individuals more personal freedoms and new opportunities for self-improvement. The sex reform movement (c. 1919-1933) aimed to provide working-class men and women with information about and access to birth control so that they could plan their families and provide for the children they already had without worrying about the possibility of more. Concurrently, the sex reform movement also advocated for the decriminalization of sex work, a goal that was achieved in 1927. Reformers rationalized that decriminalizing prostitution would empower the state to combat sexually-transmitted diseases by ensuring that infected patients, including prostitutes themselves, would be treated effectively without having to fear legal ramifications if they presented themselves at a hospital or doctor’s office. Activists even went so far as to campaign for the repeal of Germany’s Paragraph 175, the law which forbade sex between men. Significantly, as historian Laurie Marhoefer observes, the Weimar Republic also eased restrictions on media portrayals of sexuality, thus enabling the formation of advocacy groups for gay men, lesbians and individuals who identified as transvestites. German Expressionist art also reflected this wave of social reform, often in a manner that reflected the dynamism, excitement, and fantasy characteristic of cities like Berlin.
Nevertheless, as Marhoefer explains, the liberalization of sexual mores described above was often confined to specific, contained locales: bars, cabarets, clubs, and designated urban districts. Consequently, while “Berlin’s nightclubs may have been decadent […] the Republic was not” (Marhoefer 196). The fantasy of sexually liberal modernity was thus not widespread throughout Germany but rather concentrated within a few specific areas. Likewise, while artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Jeanne Mammen may have celebrated the carnivalesque excitement of Berlin’s queer subcultures and its sexual freedom, many Germans were anxious about these shifting values, fearing the destruction of traditional, conservative norms. This ambivalence about a rapidly accelerating, sexually permissive modernity is central to Caligari, manifesting most explicitly in the figure of Cesare.
Alan and Francis encounter Cesare for the first time when they take a trip to a visiting carnival. Both men are initially presented as serious and studious. Rivals for the affection of the beautiful Jane, they are nevertheless united by the bonds of a longstanding friendship. In contrast to the earnestness of Alan and Francis, the carnival is presented as outside of ordinary life: it is chaotic and noisy, a place where societal norms and structures a subverted. The carnival is a space apart from the ordinary, a realm of misrule. Like the clubs and cabarets of Weimar Germany, the carnival is both unsettling and seductive. It unnerves the good people of Holstenwall, while at the same time drawing them ineluctably towards its seductive attractions. When Alan and Francis, and later Jane, attend the carnival, they are immediately fascinated by the tent that houses Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Once they enter, for they are powerless to resist, they encounter a dark, cavernous space and, upon the stage, a large wooden cabinet. The first time Caligari opens the cabinet before a large audience that includes the awestruck Alan and Francis, the contents are unveiled in a now iconic sequence in which a stage curtain is pulled back to reveal the a coffin-like structure. Caligari, as master of ceremonies, opens the box to reveal the figure of Cesare. Gesturing emphatically, Caligari asks the audience to regard the body of the listless man. He sweeps a wand across the of the corpse-like form, drawing the viewer’s eye across its long legs and slender frame. The subsequent closeup allows us to linger on the figure’s pale face and his dark eyes, which are tightly closed. As Cesare begins to awaken the camera holds, frozen, on a closeup of his face, his eyes opening and flickering into life. When he steps forward, his motions are halting and robotic, a gait we will encounter again over a decade later in Boris Karloff’s renowned portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.
Alan and Francis, like the rest of the audience, are simultaneously attracted and repelled by Cesare. As a spectacle, the show he performs with Caligari is fascinating, his motions hypnotic, but there is something unnatural, cadaverous in his visage. Once awakened from his slumber, he promises death and wanders the streets of Holstenwall murdering those who displease his master. In addition to representing the ravages of authoritarian rule – Caligari was, after all, released only two years after a war in which millions of young men killed at the behest of their elders – he also embodies the threat of “deviance” which had emerged alongside Weimar’s delirious rush towards modernity. Cesare is a decidedly queer character. His appearance is androgynous, with its delicate frame and long limbs. His black hair is just a whisper shorter than the bob hairstyle that would become fashionable in the 1920s, and his pale features are accentuated by his kohl-rimmed eyes and dark lipstick. This implicit queerness is accentuated by the casting of Conrad Veidt as Cesare. The previous year Veidt had starred in Richard Oswald’s film Anders als die Andren (Different from the Others 1919). Playing the tortured young violinist Paul, Veidt made history by portraying one of the first sympathetic gay men in cinema. Caligari, however, is more ambivalent about Cesare’s implicit queerness. He is, on the one hand, a tragic monster, controlled by a scheming mad doctor. Conversely, he is also framed as deviant, a threat to the heteronormative family unit. In a sequence that would be echoed in James Whales’s 1931 Frankenstein, Cesare creeps into the bedroom of the white-clad Jane to menace the virginal young woman. Although originally planning to murder Jane, Cesare instead steals her away into the night, disrupting the heterosexual romantic pairing of Jane and Francis.
Alexander Doty argues that Caligari is a film suffused with queer potential, observing that the old man with whom Francis converses in the opening act of the film is the first character who could be read in this light. Explaining to Francis that “Spirits surround us on every side… they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child”, the elderly man can be understood, according to Doty, as a tragic character who has been driven from the heteronormative family home to an awkward encounter with a younger man on a park bench (23). However, it is in the figure of Cesare that such queer potential is rendered explicit. It is in Cesare that we see fully expressed the Weimar-era’s ambivalence towards queer identities or supposedly “deviant” sexualities. Confined to the carnival, a seductive realm of exciting spectacles, Cesare is merely an enticing curiosity. Yet, once released into everyday society his androgyny and threatening sexuality are reconfigured as dangerous. In many ways, this echoes Weimar Germany’s attitude towards those sexual practices labeled as “deviant”: homosexuality, prostitution, cross-dressing. While the Weimar period is remembered largely for its liberalism, it was in reality defined by a policy of containment in which queerness was limited to specific arenas – clubs and urban areas – but kept out of the wider public sphere (Marhoefer 18). Cesare, by breaking out of the spectacular realm of the carnival and roaming the streets of a small rural town, enacts a threatening intrusion of queerness into broader society.
Cesare embodies the complex and contradictory nature of Weimar ideas about sexuality and sexual freedom. A somnambulist who walks as if caught in a perpetual dream, he symbolises the hallucinatory nature of a society in which old hierarchies had been overturned and entrenched mores disassembled. Cesare moves in trance, like the citizens of Weimar who had been hypnotised by the dizzying array of novel sights and sounds flooding their senses. Yet, while Caligari tells us that his sleepwalker has slumbered for 23 years, the world he awakens into is surely no more real than the dreams he has experienced while dozing in his box. The world he awakens into is, after all, one of exploded perspective, deformed landscapes and oppressive shadows. Similarly, when Francis emerges from his delusion behind the walls of the asylum, the reality in which he emerges is also no more real than the fantasy world he has left behind: the architecture of the madhouse is just as distorted as it had been in his insane vision. Francis, like Cesare, can therefore be understood as inhabiting a liminal space between dreams and reality, shifting between one dreamscape and the next. Much as Weimar had emerged from the imperial dream into a hallucinatory state filled with new sensations and overwhelming impressions, so too do both Francis and Cesare move from one dream state to the next. For them, the boundaries between dreams and waking, internal emotion and external reality, are tenuous and ever-shifting. Writing on the eve of the film’s ninetieth anniversary, in 2009, critic Roger Ebert, argued that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could be considered cinema’s “first true horror film” not because of its ghoulish villains or (silently) shrieking damsels, but because of how it “creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy”. For me, too, this is the true horror of Caligari. Emerging in the aftermath of a global conflict, at a time when German culture was in the midst of radical transformation, Caligari asks us to consider what is real and, disturbingly, suggests that perhaps nothing is. If emotions and fantasies can be projected onto the physical landscape if dreams can invade reality and vice versa, can we ever really know whether we walk in dreams or the waking world? The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari endures, a century after audiences first shuddered at its shadowy somnambulist, largely because of the creative manner in which it plays with dreams and fantasy. Its dreamscapes are complex, layered, and multifaceted. Likewise, its “reality” is tenuous, spirit-haunted, and, in many ways, inextricable from the realm of fantasy. Caligari is a film that promises no neat division between our world and the world of dreams, and that is why it continues, a hundred years after its release, to disturb and unsettle us.
Doty, Alexander. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. Routledge, 2000.
Ebert, Roger. “A world slanted at sharp angles”. Rogerebert.com <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-cabinet-of-dr-caligari-1920>
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Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton Classics, 2004.
Marhoefer, Laurie. Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis. University of Toronto Press, 2015.
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Sharot, Stephen. “DREAMS IN FILMS AND FILMS AS DREAMS: SURREALISM AND POPULAR AMERICAN CINEMA”. Canadian Journal of Film Studies 24(1), Spring 2015, pp 66-89.
“The Sex Reform Movement in Weimar Germany (1919-1933).” Towards Emancipation. http://hist259.web.unc.edu/the-sex-reform-movement-in-weimar-germany-1919-1933/Weitz, Eric D. Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, 2007.