Film Review - The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Insanity driven set design, with alienation at every corner, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a silent film released in 1920 with an ending leaving you unheedingly going back and compiling just what the film was trying to tell you.

We are guided through a film of simple yet effective colour choice (i.e yellow for day and blue for night. see fig.2 + 3) and vivid imagery described as “one of the first horror films with one of the first twist endings.” - (KAUFMAN, 2014) Whilst it is not a typical horror film like we would normally see today such as SAW 5(2008) or Hostel (2005), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari invokes a lot of psychological uncertainty, whether than be from the characters existing at “at right angles to reality” - (Ebert, 2009) or that we have to focus to look down the eye-squinting corridors of the mad world being told to us.


Whilst The Cabinet of Dr Caligari tells us that this is a second-hand experience, in other words not real time, means we know from the very beginning that the teller of the account had not been harmed. – Completely. It removes some aspect of “fear” and apprehension that the film steadily builds such as when Cesare is leading up to stabbing the trope-fated unsuspecting damsel.  (see fig.3) 

Again, the use of strong symbolic imagery to direct the plot of the story. The all-black villain contrasted with the all-white innocent one. In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari  Jane Olsen’s hair had been carefully constructed to resemble what looked like wings. (see fig. 4) Though whilst some fear and tension is lost, as the film progresses it becomes unclear just who’s perspective we’re seeing the event play out. The lack of narration and sound only further add to the confusion or rather untrusting relationship that starts to build as an insane world spirals further down into suspicion. “it is a mad world, but its denizens are not aware of it.” - (Bennett, 1999)

(fig .4)
Close to the end of the film, it throws out a large chunk of a secondary source of the somnambulist and the events involving him from Dr. Caligari himself. Having Francis’ account by word of mouth, a diary extract from Dr. Caligari and finally the viewer’s perspective throws the story into its final stages of turmoil. The sudden format change from overly-expressive acting to flat text, though is not confusing, adds another layer onto the ever-changing perspective of Dr. Caligari’s scheming…. Or does it perhaps work in his favour?

“the unspeakable, the terrifying, the merciless” -(Ebert, 2009) Or rather, the impersonal. If looking at the film you believe the somnambulist has been controlled by Dr. Caligari, you can perhaps feel sorry for him however because of what he has done, and our emulated clouded vision that similar to someone who might be insane, we feel no remorse for the man who sleepwalks. Throughout the film we relate to nobody and given no time to reflect on what has happened. Fast paced and hectic acts happen one after another and simultaneously. Because of this we are left feeling removed from the story yet still gripping on hoping to make sense of why the Somnambulist is so easily swayed in his actions, yet cannot bring himself to stab Jane Olsen to death. Or why one world seems to be inhabited with several dimensions of warped believability.  True ‘pataphysical instances existing within one another.
(fig. 5)
In Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (fig.5), a much more personal interpretation of the Somnambulist is created, becoming Edward Scissorhands. Furthermore, you can relate to Edward on the account of him being the victim compared to the first glance of the Somnambulist being the bully. “Edward is denounced as a freak, a fake, a demon.” - (Travers, 1990) There is a sense of sympathy attached to Edward from the start which makes for a more moving experience rather than that of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’s skewed perception of what is real. But both films are created for a different purpose and thus it makes sense that there would be no relatability to any of the characters in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. You are constantly left feeling removed, right up to the end. A massive advantage to the film leaving you stumped and pondering what you just sat through.

       Whilst this could be considered a negative point about the film, it is also the intention of the director to end it like this.

Bibliography Reference list:

Bennett, C. (1999). Silent Era : Home Video : The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Review. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

Ebert, R. (2009). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Movie Review (1920) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

KAUFMAN, S. (2014). The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari review | Little White Lies. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

Travers, P. (1990). Edward Scissorhands. [online] Rolling Stone. Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

Illustration List:

(Figure 1) Wiene, R. (1990). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Movie Poster. [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

(Figure 2.) Wiene, R. (1920). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Film Still (1). [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

(Figure 3.) Wiene, R. (1920). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Film Still (2). [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

(Figure 4.) Wiene, R. (1920). The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Film Still (3). [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

(Figure 5.) Burton, T. (1990). Edward Scissorhands Film Still (1). [image] Available at: [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

Further reading (FYI):
Concept of ‘Pataphysics:'Pataphysics
Edward Scissorhands (1990):


  1. Hi Ella!

    Once again, a very satisfying read, and this time it sounds so much more academic - well done :) I particularly like your introductory paragraph...very effective.

    Just one niggley point - your first quote... you have italicised the reference instead of the quote!

    1. ah! thank you very much. I'll correct that right away. :^)