The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


The movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is a German silent horror film, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It tells the story of an insane hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a brainwashed somnambulist, Cesare, to commit murders.

In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a man named Francis shares a bench with an elderly gentleman, lamenting that unseen forces have estranged him from his loved ones and home. A woman in a trance-like state walks by them, whom Francis identifies as his betrothed, Jane, and reveals that they have endured a harrowing experience. The majority of the film is a flashback of Francis’ tale, which unfolds in Holstenwall, a quaint village characterized by warped structures and labyrinthine streets.

Francis and his companion Alan, both vying for Jane’s heart, decide to attend the local carnival. Concurrently, an enigmatic figure, Dr. Caligari, seeks permission from the abrasive town clerk to showcase an attraction at the fair, featuring Cesare, a sleepwalker. The clerk ridicules and chastises Caligari, but eventually grants the permit. That evening, the clerk is found murdered in his bed.

The following morning, Francis and Alan attend Caligari’s exhibit, where Caligari unveils the slumbering Cesare from a casket-like container. At Caligari’s command, Cesare awakens and responds to the audience’s inquiries. Despite Francis’ objections, Alan asks, “What is the span of my life?” To Alan’s dismay, Cesare replies, “Your time is fleeting. You perish at sunrise!” Later that night, an intruder breaks into Alan’s residence and fatally stabs him in his sleep. A devastated Francis, with assistance from Jane and her father, Dr. Olsen, who secures police authorization to probe the sleepwalker, investigates Alan’s murder. That night, the police arrest a criminal possessing a knife, caught attempting to assassinate an elderly woman. When interrogated by Francis and Dr. Olsen, the criminal admits his attempt on the elderly woman’s life but denies involvement in the previous two murders; he was merely exploiting the situation to deflect blame.

At night, Francis surveils Caligari and seemingly observes Cesare asleep in his box. However, the real Cesare stealthily enters Jane’s home while she sleeps. He brandishes a knife to stab her, but instead kidnaps her after a struggle, dragging her onto the street through the window. Pursued by an irate mob, Cesare eventually releases Jane and flees; he soon collapses and dies from fatigue. Francis verifies that the criminal who confessed to the elderly woman’s murder is still incarcerated and could not have been Jane’s assailant. Francis and the police scrutinize Caligari’s exhibit and discover that the “Cesare” asleep in the box is merely a mannequin. Caligari escapes amidst the chaos. Francis tails him and observes Caligari entering a mental institution.

Upon further investigation, Francis is astounded to discover that Caligari is the institution’s director. With assistance from the institution staff, Francis peruses the director’s records and diary while the director is asleep. The documents reveal his fixation with the tale of an 18th-century mystic named Caligari, who employed a sleepwalker named Cesare to commit murders in northern Italian towns. The director, striving to comprehend the earlier Caligari, conducts experiments on a sleepwalker admitted to the institution, who becomes his Cesare. The institution director exclaims, “I must embody Caligari!” Francis and the doctors summon the police to Caligari’s office, where they present him with Cesare’s corpse. Caligari then assaults one of the staff. He is subdued, restrained in a straitjacket, and becomes a patient in his own institution.

The narrative reverts to the present, where Francis concludes his narrative. In a surprising denouement, Francis is portrayed as a patient in the institution. Jane and Cesare are also patients; Jane believes she is royalty, while Cesare is not a sleepwalker but awake, calm, and seemingly harmless. The man Francis refers to as “Dr. Caligari” is the institution director. Francis attacks him and is restrained in a straitjacket, then placed in the same cell where Caligari was confined in Francis’s narrative. The institution director declares, now that he comprehends Francis’s delusion, that he is confident he can.


  • Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari
  • Conrad Veidt as Cesare
  • Friedrich Feher as Francis
  • Lil Dagover as Jane
  • Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as Alan
  • Rudolf Lettinger as Dr. Olsen


The film’s design was handled by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, who recommended a fantastic, graphic style over a naturalistic one. The film was voted number 12 on the prestigious Brussels 12 list at the 1958 World Expo. [1]


“If Caligari’s story was imbued with the emotional turmoil of the times, its visual style would go one further, breaking radically from reality and creating a chiaroscuro world of contorted angles and sharp jagged edges. Hugely innovative and influential, the studio-bound expressionist set design singled Caligari out as an ‘art’ film, while also linking it to a popular movement of the day – thus giving the film a strong commercial appeal.” [3]


[1] Wikipedia

[2] IMDb


Last updated byCody Meirick on November 26, 2023