The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is a 1920 German silent horror film, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, it tells the story of an insane hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) to commit murders. The film features a dark and twisted visual style, with sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines, structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles, and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets.
The script was inspired by various experiences from the lives of Janowitz and Mayer, both pacifists who were left distrustful of authority after their experiences with the military during World War I. 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 thematizes brutal and irrational authority; Dr. Caligari represents the German war government, and Cesare is symbolic of the common man conditioned, like soldiers, to kill. In his influential book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer says the film reflects a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant, and is an example of Germany’s obedience to authority and unwillingness to rebel against deranged authority. He says the film is a premonition of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and says the addition of the frame story turns an otherwise “revolutionary” film into a “conformistic” one. Other themes of the film include the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity, the subjective perception of reality, and the duality of human nature.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released just as foreign film industries were easing restrictions on the import of German films following World War I, so it was screened internationally. Accounts differ as to its financial and critical success upon release, but modern film critics and historians have largely praised it as a revolutionary film. Critic Roger Ebert called it arguably “the first true horror film”, and film reviewer Danny Peary called it cinema’s first cult film and a precursor to arthouse films. Considered a classic, it helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema and had a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir.