Thursday, 25 September 2014

Film Review - The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

Fig 1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Poster

Its impossible to describe The Cabinet of Dr Caligari as anything except a surreal horror. ''The film's equivocal narrative and visual stylization combine to create a disturbing fictional world.'' (White, unknown) Reading the plot at a basic level, the viewer will see a man named Dr Caligari apply for and present an exhibit. Within this exhibit he presents a somnambulist (named Cesare) and shows the audience how he can tell a man his fortune. Immediately after this, a man asks Cesare how long he has to live. The somnambulist tells him he has until dawn and sure enough the man is found stabbed to death in his bed the next morning. ''Caligari says that this wraith is a somnambulist; from birth he has never woken up, and this lifelong trance gives him the power to predict the future of any audience member.'' (Bradshaw, 2014)

Fig 2. Rooftop Still

The next part of the story shows more murders being committed in the same way and, in the scene that follows, the killer is shown to be the mysterious somnambulist as he goes after his next victim. He cannot however, bring it upon himself to kill her as he is captivated by her. Instead he attempts to kidnap her and flee the town (see Fig 2.) which doesn't work as he is being chased and is forced to drop her after crossing the bridge out of town. Cesare escapes the pursuing mob but soon after loses his strength and collapses in the woods. 

With the kidnap victims testimony against the somnambulist, the police and townspeople are able to apprehend him and Dr Caligari. Within this simple plot line there are many questions that are raised but very few are answered. The viewer has to choose which perspective to believe, as it is put forward at points that a lot of the story could have simply been visions of an insane man.

Fig 3. Cesare, The somnambulist
Fig 4. The Town Fair

 With the sets and make-up its easy to see the film through a lens of skewed perspectives. ''The sheer audacity of the film's physical and psychological conceit will haunt you forever.'' (Parkinson, 2000) The image of the town fair is a perfect example of this (See Fig 4.) as the senselessly spinning gazebo tops and the great mound of buildings in the background give the viewer a sense of madness. The violin soundtrack and strange camera angles bring forth a nightmarish quality to the scenes that happen in this space.

The film has a large amount of breathtaking imagery throughout, which of course, have strengthened its story and its ideas. Its habit of focusing in on certain characters to highlight their faces and expressions (See Fig 3.) forces the audience to really look at these characters in much greater detail than in normal scenes. 

This film is proof that films that successfully push the boundaries of the cinematic experience and explore new territories, are the foundations on which later films are judged.

Illustration List
Wiene, R (1920) Figure 1. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari Poster. (Accessed on 25/09/14)

Wiene, R (1920) Figure 2. Rooftop Still.
es/26177/dr.-caligari-1.jpg (Accessed on 25/09/14)

Wiene, R (1920) Figure 3. Cesare, The somnambulist.
1cc7d2b7aa225e0e1c9f1f/tumblr_nbt9j203ZJ1tdwlnso3_500.jpg (Accessed on 25/09/14)

Wiene, R (1920) Figure 4. The Town Fair.
03.jpg (Accessed on 25/09/14)

White, M.B (unknown) (Accessed on 25/09/14)

Bradshaw, P (2014) (Accessed on 25/09/14)

Parkinson, D (2000) (Accessed on 25/09/14)


  1. Hi Jack, I'm Shan, a third year on the course and your new mentor: exciting stuff! If you need a hand with anything no matter how BIG or small be sure to find me in the building or contact me at my blogger or better still at my e-mail address and I'll gladly take a look and try to help you out!
    First of all, how are you finding your induction to uni?
    Reading through your review it's great, it's nice you've nailed your referencing already, which believe me can take some time. One small foot note, you may want to save your review as a PDF and upload it to Scibd if you don't already have an account on there, it's amazing how many people will read it and be directed to your blog through another site. Also it's really not a big deal but you may have been annoyed by the white background blogger decides to take in when you copy quotes from the internet, I can fix this in the HTML for you if you find me about :)
    Looking forward to meeting you!

    1. Hi Shannon, everything is going great so far and thanks for the advice!

  2. hey nice review jack!

    I came across the white highlighting thingy when I was copying my review over from word to blogger. I got rid of it by going into the HTML of the post, Ctrl + F (for find) and searching "White"

    Then it should highlight all instances of the word "white" in the code part called: span style="background: white;">

    If you just take out the white so its: span style="background: ;">
    the white highlight will go away!
    hope that helps :^)

  3. Hello Jack!
    Nice first review - well done!

    Just a couple of pointers from me... firstly, regarding your use of quotes. You have selected some pertinent ones here - just to make the writing flow better, you should introduce them, rather than just dropping them in. So for example,

    'With the sets and make-up its easy to see the film through a lens of skewed perspectives. As David Parkinson states in his review in Empireonline, ''The sheer audacity of the film's physical and psychological conceit will haunt you forever.''(Parkinson, 2000)

    If you are unsure of the date of a quote, you should use s.d. in place of 'unknown'. Similarly, if the author is unknown you would use s.n.

    Don't worry about editing this review - just take the hints forward to the next one :)