Wednesday, 23 September 2015

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) - A Review

Fig 1.

In which the bleak offering of Robert Weine encapsulates an innate dread born from the fallout of the first world war. Establishing itself as the progenitor of the soon-to-be tropes and stylistic flair of German expressionism; “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920) posits a tale of fantastical and paranoid horror, set in an equally oppressive locale.

This paranoia is conveyed in a myriad of ways, be it the storytelling; allowing itself an air of the anti-establishment now more commonly seen in films like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985), the almost crazed exuberance captured in the performances or perhaps most effectively, in the art direction, Featuring bizarre jagged shapes and ghast-like people that recollect an unseen violence the world on screen has endured, and further to the point, adapted to.

A huge part of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”’s success stems from the atmosphere that is sustained and indeed increased to an almost palpable intensity by the twisted, roughly created (no doubt to be reflective of it’s inhabitants), almost Goya-esque sets, coupled with the unreliability of the narrator, Francis, and the claustrophobic fever like dream they both invoke. An unreliable narrator is defined by the farcical nature of their viewpoint. He or she is “lying to us, to other characters or to themselves”. (Nobile Jr, 2015) and indeed it seems that in this instance the town of Holstenwall as well as Francis himself, is subject to the same behaviour.
Fig 2.

The almost deliberate shabbiness of the set design is also meaningful in that it further reinforced this idea of a broken world. Noel Murray posits that “the world of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is meant to resemble the world of the stage and the contents of the characters’ minds” (Murray, 2014) and with it we are being given all of the necessary information to detect that perhaps things are more askew than they initially seem from the onset.

Fig 3.
The perpetual gloom, stark lighting and odd circular motifs embolden the art direction and in turn, an eeriness that settles after the opening.  Indeed, Kevin Kryah discusses “patterns on the walls” that “create a sharp point that echo Cesare’s entry into the room and his unsheathing of a dagger” (Kryah, 2015) evidencing the art informing the eye. This idea of a circular motif becomes important to the notion of political unrest of post war Germany, as it was a “...motif that hinted at the specter of unrest and the never-ending cycle of authoritarianism, a fear in the minds of German citizens.” (Kryah, 2015).

What makes the experience so effective is the atmosphere Weine has strived to create, not only hinting at greater sorrow beyond the limits of Holstenwall, but also in the mindset of a post war people still struggling with the way of things. That he has done this not just by sheer virtue of conventional storytelling, but in a show-don’t-tell approach based primarily on visual storytelling is only something that can be, and indeed, has been celebrated for years to come.


Murray, Noel. 'The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari'. The Dissolve. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Kryah, Kevin. 'The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari: Dark Relationship With Postwar Germany | The Artifice'. The-artifice.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Nobile, Phil Jr. 'Framing CALIGARI: The Unplanned Birth Of Cinema’S First Unreliable Narrator'. Birth.Movies.Death.. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.


Figure 1. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [Poster] At: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/35/Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-poster.jpg (Accessed on 23.09.2015)

Figure 2. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [Thumbnail] At: http://quietus_production.s3.amazonaws.com/images/articles/1003/caligari___1232121337_crop_557x375.jpg (Accessed on 23.09.2015)

Figure 3. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [Still] At: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/05/cabinet-of-dr-caligari-dvd-review-classic-french#img-1 (Accessed on 23.09.2015)


  1. An extremely well-thought through review Joseph, well done :)

    Just a couple of small pointers - don't forget to italicise your quotes, as this helps the reader separate them from the rest of the text. Also, just have another look at the Harvard method of referencing - you are nearly there, but just a couple of tweaks needed. Look here - http://community.ucreative.ac.uk/Harvard-Referencing
    Your bibliography also needs to be organised alphabetically by the author's surname.

    Looking forward very much to reading future reviews!

    1. Hey Jackie,

      Thank you for your feedback, I knew I was forgetting something! :)

      I'll take all of that on board for the next one, Looking forward to writing more reviews!