“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”: the first true horror film; what does the ending mean? 

4/5 stars

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” 1920, directed by Robert Wiene is a German silent film that not only embodied the popular style of German Expressionism at the time, but is also considered by most modern critics to be the first horror film. The story is of a man named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) recounting the terrifying events that happened to him and his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover), in their hometown. During the annual fair, an eccentric hypnotist named Caligari (Werner Krauss) shows off his somnambulist, or sleepwalker, named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whom he uses to commit murders at night. While accounts of how critics and audiences initially responded to “Caligari” differ, it can be safely said that the film has cemented itself in cinema history. 

This film, cited as the first horror film by most modern movie critics, has a very striking visual style that was influenced heavily by the immensely popular style of German Expressionism. German Expressionism was an art movement in the early 20th century where the goal was for the artist to express their inner feelings outward and to make the consumer see the mind and world of the artist. In “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the sets are heavily influenced by the style, with its sharp, unnatural angles, twisting rooftops and small, cramped spaces. The unique style of the film went on to inspire filmmakers for generations to come, most notably: Tim Burton. 

When the film was released, Germany was still reeling from the aftermath of World War I in which they had to pay extensive war reparations, sending the country into a deep financial crisis. The film’s themes of complacency and conforming to society as well as the line between reality and fiction resonated with contemporary German audiences. Just a few years back Germans suffered terrible losses in a war they were told that fighting in was for a righteous cause. They conformed to what they were told and then killed who they were told, not unlike Cesare in the film. The same message still resonates today over a century later. 

Spoiler warning from this point forward. 

However, what makes “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” such an interesting film is not its significance when it came out or its striking visual style – it is the film’s ending. The film is framed as a story Francis is telling to an old man on a bench. At the end of the film, after Cesare has murdered the town clerk, Francis’s friend Alan (Hans Heinz v. Twardowski), and attempts to kidnap Jane, Francis chases Caligari to the asylum where it is revealed that he is the director. That night, with the help of the doctors at the asylum, Francis goes through Caligari’s books to discover that he is imitating the actions of an ancient mystic also named Caligari. After revealing that Cesare has died, doctors then throw the villainous director in a cell. That wraps up Francis’s story and he and the old man get up from the bench, where it is revealed that Francis is an inpatient at the asylum. Jane and Cesare are also patients and a less villainous looking Caligari is the director. Francis attacks the director, insisting that he is not insane, where he is thrown into the same cell Caligari was thrown in at the end of Francis’s story. The director states that he knows how to cure Francis and as the camera fades to black, it lingers on the director’s face. That final scene begs the question; what is real and what is not? 

I watched the film with first-years Shira Hanovich (any pronouns) and Kayla Jarppi (she/her) to see how they interpreted the film’s ending. Both Hanovich and Jarppi interpreted the events of Francis’s story to be partially true but went in completely different directions with how.  

According to Hanovich, Francis’s friend Alan was murdered in real life and the grief over his death drove him mad. The entire film was Francis trying to piece together and rationalize what happened to Alan. She interprets that the reason the sets are so strange is because it is all in his head. Hanovich also suggests that Francis also latched onto people in the asylum who seemed familiar to him and placed them in his story. For example, he vilifies the director since Francis believes that he does not belong in the asylum and therefore the director is keeping him wrongfully locked up. Meanwhile, Jarppi, who is a psychology major, believes that Francis is the actual murderer but was believing in a delusion. She believes that while Francis was the actual murderer, he disassociated the events in his mind and projected himself onto the ancient mystic Caligari. “Almost like a dissociative identity thing, where he was like a different person almost when he did [the murders],” Jarppi said. He does not understand what is real or not, nor that he was the one committing the murders. 

I believe that the events of Francis’s story were all in his head and that he subconsciously included the people whom he had strong connections with into the story. Judging from the warped and almost dreamlike design of the town, it would stand to reason that that is what is going on inside Francis’s mind, especially since the whole point of German Expressionism is to bring the artist’s mind into the real world. Also, the inside of the asylum is the only set we see in both the “real world” and in Francis’s story, suggesting that that is the only concrete thing that he can envision. 

Of course, those are only three people’s interpretations. I encourage all of you to watch “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and come to your own conclusions.