The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German: Das Kabinett 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. Concentrating on the theme of authoritatianism, 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.
Kracauer sees the theme of tyranny as central to the Caligari: Stairs lead to hierarchy, power is represented by enormous chairs. He even sees Caligari as ‘a premonition of Hitler’ (p72) He ‘uses hypnotic power to force his will upon his tool –a technique foreshadowing, in content and purpose, that manipulation of the soul which Hitler was the first to practice on a gigantic scale’ (p73). He views the fair (or carnival) as a location of ‘anarchy entailing chaos’ (p73). Whilst Kracauer accepts its place in the film is as a setting for escape and freedom, he believes it unconsciously refers to the chaos of the era, the chaos that births the Caligari character.
The depiction of authoritarianism can be unfolded by detailed arrangement of the visual elements. The funfair “as a central motif in expressionist cinema” (Coates, 1991, p28), is a suitable location ‘for bringing art and entertainment together before the public’ and ‘to all mankind, rich and poor’ (Robert, 2004, p183). It can be interpreted as a miniature of German society. From this, the public’s attitude towards social issues is also disclosed.
The scenes of a little monkey might explain this argument. It appears twice in the funfair, right before Caligari’s two introductions of the somnambulist. The monkey’s owner is grasping its tail in hands the whole sequence, signifying his dominance on this adorable creature. To my mind, the monkey is similar to Cesare who is used by the master as a tool, while its owner is comparable to Caligari who indulges himself in governing people regardless of their pleasure and freedom. However, the most heartbroken fact is the problematic reaction from the citizen. They either overlook its existence, or stop and make fun of it without noticing its pain. Its scream seems to be translated into a sort of hilarity in the visitors’ eyes. Accordingly, the ignorance and cruelness of society are connoted in the film. People’s unawareness of their own miserableness signifies their characteristics of the kind that “‘thinks’ only in crude generalizations” and “no longer has the ability to make clear, self-determined judgments” (Brockmann, 2010, p45), clarifying another reason of the authority’s excessive manipulation.
Additionally, the consistent adoption of circular iris is another sign to demonstrate the dominant position of Dr. Caligari. As long as he shows up on the screen, “the shot opens in darkness before a circular image expands to fill the screen” (Robert, 2004, p183). In this way, no matter what the composition of Caligari is, the focus of the audiences is always on his face, which contributes to the representation of authoritarianism and the tyrant’s desire for attention. Plus, this circle of light also appears at the end of this film in the director’s face, echoing the return of Dr. Caligari's capital dominance.