Monster #14 - Dr Caligari


Germany, 1920

A Decla Bioscope Filmgesellschaft Berlin Production
72 mins, black & white, silent, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Shot on 35mm film, at 18 fps

Director - Robert Wiene
Screenplay - Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Cinematographer - Willy Hameister
Production Design - Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm
Set Design - Hermann Warm (uncredited)

Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari), Conrad Veidt (Cesare), Friedrich Fehér (Franzis), Lil Dagover (Jane), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Alan), Rudolf Lettinger (Dr. Olsen)

Monsters of the Movies not only introduced my 13-year old self to a lot of ghouls, monsters and fiends I had never even heard of before, it also offered me a first glimpse of the "classics" and thus a sense of history and the roots of the genre.

Reading my way through Denis Gifford's alphabetic roll-call, monster number 14 was the first introduction to the horror cinema's first generation of creepy terrors - and with such a mysterious name, Dr Caligari immediately caught my attention.

The image selected by Denis Gifford for this entry - showing actor Werner Kraus as the insane hypnotist and psychiatrist Dr Caligari and Conrad Veidt as the somnabulist who is controlled by Caligari for his evil schemes of murder and mayhem - had a decidedly eerie feel to it, which (of course) even increased my interest.

My 13-year old self had never heard of this movie before, and I only started to grasp its impact on cinema history and its importance for the horror genre a few weeks later, when buying Gifford's Pictorial History of Horror Movies (which featured a more in-depth review and plenty more still images).


(Carousel Books / Transworld Publishing)

Filmed in December 1919 and January 1920 at the Lixie Atelier in Weissensee (Berlin), Das Cabinett des Dr Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, featuring an extremely dark and twisted visual style, highlighted by structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles, sharp-pointed forms, and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets.

  But back in 1977 I only had an inkling of all of this, and it took me a very long time to actually get to see the movie - inspite of the deep impression the film stills made on my 13-year old self and my subsequent interest in the genre.

In 2012, the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau foundation decided to produce a completely new digital restoration of the movie - the first such project to make extensive use of digital restoration tools and color grading and to work with the six known, differently tinted and toned historical prints from the 1920s (Flueckiger, 2015).

In addition to these, several other (monotone black & white) prints were used, such as a 1935 16mm print and the 1919 black & white camera negative (no 1919 colored nitrate print survives). Every one of these surviving prints has its issues (missing scenes, scratches, chemical defects, etc)., so different parts from the various prints had to be scanned and combined.

The result was first shown at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and subsequently released on Blu-ray. The meticulous approach to the restoration has worked wonders, especially considering the age of the material, and the substantial extras docukenting the various aspects of the restoration work are fascinating by themselves.

In these days of CGI, watching a feature length silent movie is a very different experience that requires the right mindset. In the case of Das Cabinett des Dr Caligari, however, it only takes a few minutes of adjusting - not the least because the movie isn't actually black and white, but tinted in different shades of colour, e.g. using blue tint for night shots.
In that respect, Das Cabinett des Dr Caligari also taught me that our idea of what early "black & white" movies look like is, actually, quite a bit off the mark.

"Seeing films as early audiences would have seen them provides a powerful visual surprise." (Monaghan, 2016)

The film contains 141 scenes and features a framing story that ultimately reveals itself as putting a fundamental twist on the entire movie - yet another novel and thereafter often copied plot device. The main story of Das Cabinett des Dr Caligari has a distinct abstract quality that often creates an unreal atmosphere, not unlike a bad dream. In terms of plot and characterisation, however, there is very little - viewers aren't told much about the why, which makes the unfolding terror and its visuals all the more menacing.

Perhaps not surprisingly - given both the age and the reputation of the film - there are a number of conjectures made by various film historians, ranging from a possible involvement of Fritz Lang to potential changes made to the script by the producer.

Likewise, different explanations for the origin of the name Caligari exist, but so far none has proven bulletproof (except that the character's name is spelled Calligaris in the only known surviving script - other names differ from those used in the final film version as well).


Denis Gifford's compilation of 46 horror movies included both the highly influential as well as the highly forgettable, and sometimes somewhere in-between, but Cabinett des Dr Caligari may well be the most lastingly influential film on Gifford's list, since its profound and lasting impact went far beyond the horror genre.
  Many of the film's Expressionist elements (such as the methods of using light and shadow to represent impending danger as well as the dark psychology of its characters) can be found in subsequent German movies such as Murnau's Nosferatu (1922, also included in Gifford's Monsters of the Movies) or Lang's Metropolis (1927).

The film's success also influenced the thinking behind how to shoot a movie, with many directors in Europe and the States moving away from location shootings and onto studio stages.

There are traces of Caligari to be found in American noir movies from the 1940s and 1950s, and you can clearly see glimpses of the film in Hitchcok's work as well, both in tterms of visual style (with dark and shadowy settings and very stylized and sometimes even abstract camera work) as well as narrative tone (the innocent being subject to suspicion).

Monster Factor:

Overall Movie Rating:


Das Cabinett des Dr Caligari is a true classic gem of movie history - just make sure you enjoy it in its intended form, i.e. watch the restored version from the Murnau foundation. Doing so brings out all the qualities it has. The movie does have its slow bits, and characterization is in somewhat short supply, but the unsettling visuals both of the sets and the appearance of Dr Caligari himself more than make up for it.


Denis Gifford on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973)

"The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is still not only a great horror film, it is a classic of cinema."


FLUECKIGER Barbara (1975) "Color Analysis for the Digital Restoration of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari", The Moving Image Vol. 15 No. 1 (Spring 2015), University of Minnesota Press

GIFFORD Denis (1973) A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Hamlyn

MONAGHAN Peter (2016) "Reproducing Film Colors, and Their Significances", Moving Image Archive News, 17 March 2016


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The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction in this non-commercial review and research context is considered to be fair use
as set out by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. par. 107
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for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

All images from Monsters of the Movies (Carousel/Transworld) were scanned from my personal copy purchased in 1977
All images of Blu-ray or DVD covers were scanned from my personal copies

Page created 3 September 2023
Last updated 20 October 2023

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