My initial viewing of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) took place in 2022. As a 21st-century moviegoer, I had been educated by technically refined psychological horrors such as The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), and Triangle (Christopher Smith, 2009). Nevertheless, viewing this cinematic gem over a century after its release, I remained enthralled by its avant-garde, inventive and theatrically stylized production design, as well as its twisted and nuanced narrative structure. Serving as one of the most iconic works of German Expressionist film, it not only propelled a cinematic movement but also bequeathed a rich legacy to film, particularly the psychological horror genre.

The eerie and unsettling atmosphere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is directly manifested through its production design. As Mark Chalon Smith states, the film, “was… the first picture to use set design as more than just a backdrop for the action.”1 The distorted houses, irregular doors, windows, tents, coffins, and even the intertitles designed with asymmetrical graphics – these peculiar designs imply a sense of psychological instability. They not only mirror the inner worlds of the characters within the film but also serve as a reflection of the post-World War I German society’s emotional state. This audacious and surrealistic design owes its inception to three production designers: Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig. It was their proposition that films should be presented in an Expressionist style.2 Following the resounding success of Caligari, Expressionism became a significant film movement, and its exaggerated and artificial aesthetics was frequently employed in subsequent horror films, such as Nosferatu (F. W Murnau, 1922). This phenomenon led to some production designers commanding salaries even higher than stars, and their names often featured prominently in promotional materials.3

Although understandably the film is most often analysed through German Expressionism, this movement was, in turn, key to the development of the horror genre. As Wells points out:

One of the determinants of the transition and emergence of the horror film out of the silent era in the United States is the influence of the German Expressionist films, so key in the evolution of the genre as a whole. Brownlow notes that another drug-oriented narrative, Human Wreckage (1923) (written by C. Gardner Sullivan, and first entitled The Living Dead) depicted the psychological state of a drug addict through a set designed in a similar way to that of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.4

The influence of Caligari is significant not only in terms of production design but also in the development of character and plot tropes in subsequent psychological horror films, such as Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese 2010).

The story of Caligari unfolds as a layered narrative. The film begins with Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounting a tale of terror that happened in his hometown. A hypnotist, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), arrives in the town of Holstenwall, and presents a mesmerizing spectacle at the annual fair by awakening a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). During nights, he exerts control over Cesare to commit a series of murders. Ultimately, Francis exposes the plot and apprehends him. After Francis concludes narrating the tale, he steps into an asylum, encounters Dr. Caligari, and accuses him of being a murderer. However, the film does not conclude here; instead, it returns to the opening scene – the scene where Francis recounts the story – in order to provide a significant psychological twist to the narrative.

The story draws inspiration from the real-life experiences of two screenplay writers, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Both Mayer and Janowitz used to serve in the military, and the traumas inflicted upon them by military life and war formed the bedrock of their creative endeavour.5 As Robinson states, “…most important in Janowitz’s view, was the pathological mistrust of ‘the authoritative power of an inhuman state gone mad.’”6 Mayer, pretending mental illness in a bid to evade deployment to the battlefield, used to engage in a prolonged intellectual battle with a military psychiatrist. This psychiatrist becomes the prototype for Dr. Caligari.7 Additionally, the town of Holstenwall and the annual fair find their origins in an amusement park in Hamburg where a tragic incident of a girl’s murder occurred.8

Based on these experiences, Mayer and Janowitz crafted the ‘murder’ segment of the narrative. However, it was the director, Robert Wiene, who layered an element of ‘delusion’. This alteration greatly displeased the two writers, but it received approval from the production company.9 Siegfried Kracauer famously criticised this addition, suggesting that it transformed an anti-authoritarian story “into a conformist one.”10 However, it enriched the storytelling, in that structurally, it transitioned from a linear structure to a multi-layered one, expanding from one story (‘murder’) to two stories (‘murder’ and ‘delusion’).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This incorporation of delusion would, in later years, become a common “syntactic” structural trope11 of psychological horror, such as Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), Santa Sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989), and The Others (Michael Bay, 2001). The benefit of this lies in enhancing the audience’s experience of terror. They not only undergo a murder mystery but also subsequently experience psychological suspicion: is the narrator reliable? It is the layered delusional plot that generates the suspicion, leaving an enduring resonance in the minds of the audience. Altman points out that generic pleasure arises from deviating from social norms, and when this deviation is rectified, pleasure is experienced anew.12 When murder occurs and the murderer is subdued, one deviation/rectification is accomplished. When a delusional patient rebels and ultimately is subdued, another deviation/rectification takes place. However, the nuanced line and performance by Dr. Caligari at the ending of the film encourages a potential deviation of possibilities in the audience’s mind. The commercial success of Caligari upon its original release in 1920 can be tied, at least in part, to this psychological enjoyment.

The visual style of Caligari is remarkably prominent, leading to a central focus on the production designers, with comparatively rare mentions of the director, Robert Wiene. However, the director is the one threading every piece into the final product. Fritz Lang was initially suggested to be the director. Due to Lang’s scheduling conflicts, however, the duty was assigned to Wiene.13 Yet, Wiene successfully delivered a film that has earned its place in the history of cinema, not only in terms of the German Expressionist film movement from which it emerged, but also the psychological horror subgenre that it helped to create. It is a formidable challenge for a director to guide one’s attention and emotions, especially fear, with few camera movements across the whole film (only in one scene where Jane (Lil Dagover) goes to find her father, does the camera slightly pan. For the rest of the film, the camera remains still). For example, when Dr. Caligari visits the town fair after applying for a permit from the town officer, Wiene enables the audience to psychologically experience the sense of threat. Firstly, he creates a lively and cheerful fair scene for the audience by carefully orchestrating the movements and interactions of the happy townsfolk, and the composition of the frame is balanced. Later, Dr. Caligari, leaning on a cane, moving slowly and with a hint of malevolence on his face, abruptly intrudes the space. He enters the frame from the right-hand side and moves to the centre in the foreground, dominating the space and disrupting the previously established equilibrium. It is this disequilibrium that encourages the audience to feel an unease that will build to terror. 

Caligari not only provided a template for future psychological horrors in terms of aesthetics, such as low-key lighting, production design, and narrative structure but also, regardless of the debate (whether it be about Kracauer’s intended criticism of dictators or the revelation of mental illness), demonstrated its ability to offer a suitable container for ideology. Thus, we now have contemporary psychological horrors that integrate all kinds of ideologies, such as Gokseong (The Wailing, Na Hong-jin, 2016) exploring the intersection of tradition and modernity, Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) addressing racial discrimination, and The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019) delving into issues of sexual identity, among others.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1920 Germany 67mins)

Prod Co: Decla-Film Gesellschaft./Holz & Co. Prod: Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer Dir: Robert Wiene Scr: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz Phot: Willy Hameister Ed: not credited Prod Des: Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm Mus: Giuseppe Becce

Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Hans Lanser-Rudolf, Henri Peters-Arnolds, Ludwig Rex, Elsa Wagner.


  1. Mark Chalon Smith, “Practicing Evil With ‘Dr. Caligari’,Los Angeles Times, 28 October 1993.
  2. David Robinson, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (London: BFI Publishing, 2013), p. 29.
  3. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, 电影艺术:形式与风格  (Film Art: An Introduction) (Beijing: Beijing United Publishing, 2015), p. 536.
  4. Paul Wells, The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), p. 42. Emphasis in the original.
  5. Robinson, 13.
  6. Idem, 14.
  7. Idem, 14.
  8. Idem, 13.
  9. Idem, 17.
  10. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeston and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019), p. 66-67.
  11. Rick Altman, A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre in Film Genre Reader IV, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. 27.
  12. Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), p. 144.
  13. Robinson, 15.