SCRIPT TO SCREEN: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariRobert Wiene | 1920 | Germany | Format: 35mm, Black and White, Silent  | 51-78 min (varies; different versions)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opened today almost 100 years ago in 1920. Gance loved it, Eisenstein hated it. Today it's considered a horror classic and a great experiment in Expressionism. Even though we live in the digital age, it is worth going back in time to study the story of how this movie was made in an era when film was still in its infancy. We stand to benefit from the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari and learn things, such as:
  • How the writers collaborated to combine their experiences and imagination in crafting the script.
  • How the writers used their connections to their advantage even though they had never worked for a studio before.
  • How their passion and unique "pitch" convinced the executive to buy the writers's script.
  • Why it's important to know what rights you are signing away.
  • How collaboration between the director and the production designer pays huge dividends.
  • How a great film can be made despite rivalries and disputes.
  • Why it's not always a bad thing to be cheap or take advantage of the current art movement du jour (if done right).
  • Why it's good to have experienced actors on the set of an experimental film.
  • Why the director needs to know how to communicate what he or she wants from the actors.
  • Why actors should be given freedom to insert their own touch to their character ~~ whether it's make-up, costume, dialogue or affect.
  • Why you have to be willing to cut things out of the script during shooting.
  • Why cinematography should be used to serve the story's themes and style instead of as a way to show off with florid camera movements.
  • Why you should market the movie before it is even released.
  • And, in the end, why you will never know if people will love your film or not until they see it.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both of whom were pacifists by the time they met following World War I. Janowitz served as an officer during the war, but the experience left him embittered with the military, which affected his writing. Meyer feigned madness to avoid military service during the war, which led him to intense examinations from a military psychiatrist. The experience left him distrustful of authority, and the psychiatrist served as a model for who would eventually become the Dr. Caligari character. Janowitz and Mayer were introduced in 1918 by a mutual friend, Ernst Deutsch. Both writers were penniless at the time. Gilda Langer, an actress with whom Mayer was in love, encouraged Janowitz and Mayer to write a film together. She later became the basis for the Jane character. Langer also encouraged Janowitz to visit a fortune teller, who predicted that Janowitz would survive his military service during the war, but Langer would die. This prediction proved true, as Langer died unexpectedly in 1920, and Janowitz said it inspired the scene in which Cesare predicts Alan's death at the fair. 
Although neither had any associations the film industry, Janowitz and Mayer wrote a script over six weeks during the winter of 1918–19.The Expressionist filmmaker Paul Wegener was among their influences. The story was partially inspired by a circus sideshow the two visited on Kantstrasse in Berlin, called "Man and Machine", in which a man performed feats of great strength after becoming hypnotized. Several of Janowitz's past experiences influenced his writing, including memories of his hometown of Prague and, as he put it, a mistrust of "the authoritative power of an inhuman state gone mad" due to his military service. Janowitz also believed he had witnessed a murder in 1913 near an amusement park on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, beside the Holstenwall, which served as another inspiration for the script. According to Janowitz, he observed a woman disappear into some bushes, from which a respectable-looking man emerged a few moments later, and the next day Janowitz learned the girl was murdered. Holstenwall later became the name of the town setting in Caligari.
Janowitz and Mayer are said to have set out to write a story denouncing arbitrary authority as brutal and insane. Janowitz said exposing the "authoritative power of an inhuman state" was the "subconscious intention" of the writers. However, Hermann Warm, who designed the film's sets, said that Mayer had no political intentions when he wrote the film. Film historian David Robinson noted that Janowitz did not refer to anti-authority intentions in the script until many decades after Caligari was released, and he suggested Janowitz's recollection may have changed in response to later interpretations to the film. The film they wrote was entitled Das Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, using the English spelling "Cabinet" rather than the German "Kabinett". The completed script contained 141 scenes. Janowitz has claimed the name "Caligari", which was not settled upon until after the script was finished, was inspired by a rare book called ‘’Unknown Letters of Stendhal'’, which featured a letter from the French novelist Stendhal referring to a French officer named Caligari he met at the La Scala theater in Milan. However, no record of any such letter exists, and film historian John D. Barlow suggested Janowitz may have fabricated the story. The physical appearance of Dr. Caligari was inspired by portraits of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The character's name is spelled "Calligaris" in the only known surviving script, although in some instances the final "s" is removed. Other character names are also spelled differently from the final film: Cesare appears as "Caesare", Alan is "Allan" or sometimes "Alland" and Dr. Olfen is "Dr. Olfens". Likewise, unnamed characters in the final film have names in the script, including the town clerk ("Dr. Lüders") and the house-breaker ("Jakob Straat").
The story of Caligari is told abstractly, like a fairy tale, and includes little description about or attention toward the psychological motivations of the characters, which is more heavily emphasized in the film's visual style. The original script shows few traces of Expressionist influence that are prevalent in the film's sets and costumes. Through film director Fritz Lang, Janowitz and Mayer met with Erich Pommer, head of production at the Decla-Bioscop film studio, on April 19, 1919, to discuss selling the script. According to Pommer, he attempted to get rid of them, but they persisted until he agreed to meet with them. Pommer reportedly asked the writers to leave the script with him, but they refused, and instead Mayer read it aloud to him. Pommer was so impressed that he refused to let them leave until a contract was signed, and he purchased the script from them that night for 4,000 marks. The contract, today preserved at Berlin's Bundesfilmarchiv, gave Pommer the right to make any changes to the script deemed appropriate. Pommer said he was drawn to the script because he believed it could be filmed inexpensively, and it bore similarities to films inspired by the macabre horror shows of the Grand Guignol theater in Paris, which were popular at the time. Pommer later said: "They saw in the script an 'experiment'. I saw a relatively cheap film."
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari makes use of a "Rahmenerzählung", or frame story, with both a prologue and epilogue establishing the main body of the film as a flashback, an innovative technique at the time. Fritz Lang has claimed he suggested that Janowitz and Mayer add an opening scene with a "normal" style, which would lead the public into the rest of the film without confusion. However, it remains unclear whether Lang suggested the frame story structure itself, or simply gave advice on how to write a frame story that was already agreed upon, and some writers, like film historian David Robinson, have questioned whether Lang's recollection is correct. Janowitz has claimed he and Mayer were not privy to discussions about adding the frame story and strongly opposed its inclusion, believing it had deprived the film of its revolutionary and political significance; he wrote that it was "an illicit violation, a raping of our work" that turned the film "into a cliché, in which the symbolism was to be lost". Janowitz claims the writers sought legal action to stop the change, but were unsuccessful. He also claims they did not see the finished film with the frame story until a preview was shown to studio heads, after which the writers "expressed our dissatisfaction in a storm of thunderous remonstrances". They had to be persuaded not to publicly protest the film.


Many details about the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are in dispute and will probably remain unsettled due to the large number of people involved in the making of the film, many of whom have recalled it differently or dramatized their own contributions to its production. Production of the film was delayed about four or five months after the script was purchased.  Pommer originally chose Lang as the director of Caligari, and Lang even went so far as to hold preparatory discussions about the script with Janowitz, but he was involved in the filming ofThe Spiders and became unavailable, so Robert Wiene was selected instead. 
Decla producer Rudolf Meinert introduced Hermann Warm to Wiene and provided Warm the Caligari script, asking him to come up with proposals for the design.  Warm felt a naturalistic set was wrong for the subject of the film, instead recommending a fantastic, graphic style, in which the images would be visionary, nightmarish and out of the ordinary. Warm brought to the project his two friends, painters and stage designers Walter Reimann andWalter Röhrig, both of whom were associated with the Berlin art and literary magazine Der Sturm. The trio spent a full day and part of the night reading the script,  after which Reimann suggested an Expressionist style, a style often used in his own paintings. They also conceived the idea of painting forms and shadows directly onto the set to ensure a dark and unreal look. According to Warm, the three approached Wiene with the idea and he immediately agreed, although Wiene has made claims that he conceived the film's Expressionist style. Meinert agreed to the idea after one day's consideration, telling Warm, Reimann and Röhrig to make the sets as "crazy" and "eccentrically" as possible. He embraced the idea for commercial, not aesthetic reasons: Expressionism was fashionable at the time, so he concluded even if film received bad reviews, the artistic style would garner attention and make it profitable. 
Wiene filmed a test scene to demonstrate Warm, Reimann, and Röhrig's theories, and it was so impressed the producers that the artists were given free rein. Pommer later said he was responsible for placing Warm, Reimann and Röhrig in charge of the sets.  But Warm has claimed that, although Pommer was in charge of production at Decla when Caligari was made, he was not actually a producer on the film itself. Instead, he says Meinert was the true film's true producer, and that it was he who gave Warm the manuscript.  Warm claimed Meinert produced the film "despite the opposition of a part of the management of Decla." Meinert said Pommer had "not sanctioned" the film's abstract visual style. Nevertheless, Pommer claimed to have supervised Caligari, and that the film's Expressionistic style was chosen in part to differentiate it from competing Hollywood films. The dominance of Hollywood at the time, coupled with a period of inflation and currency devaluation, forced German film studios to seek projects that could be made inexpensively, with a combination of realistic and artistic elements so the films would both accessible to American audiences and distinctive from Hollywood films. Pommer has claimed while Mayer and Janowitz expressed a desire for artistic experimentation in the film, his decision to use painted canvases as scenery was primarily a commercial one, as they would be a significant financial saving over building sets. 
Janowitz claims he attempted to commission the sets from designer and engraver Alfred Kubin, known for his heavy use of light and shadow to create a sense of chaos, but Kubin declined to participate in the project because he was too busy.  In a conflicting story, however, Janowitz claimed he asked Decla to seek Kubin, and that they misread his instructions and hired Reimann and Röhrig. Film historian David Robinson argues this story was probably an embellishment stemming from Janowitz's disdain for the two artists.  Janowitz has claimed that he and Mayer conceived the idea of painting the sets on canvas, and that the shooting script included written directions that the scenery be designed in Kubin's style. However, the later rediscovery of the original screenplay refutes this claim, as it includes no such directions about the sets. This was also disputed in a 1926 article by Barnet Braverman that appeared in Billboard magazine, which claimed the script included no mention of an unconventional visual style, and that Janowitz and Mayer in fact strongly opposed the stylization. She claims Mayer later came to appreciate the visual style, but that Janowitz remained opposed to it years after the film's release. 
The set design, costumes and props took about two weeks to prepare. Warm worked primarily on the sets, while Röhrig handled the painting and Reimann was responsible for the costumes. Film historian David Robinson noted the costumes in Caligari seem to resemble a wide variety of time periods, For example, Dr. Caligari and the fairground workers' costumes resemble the Biedermeier era, while Jane's embody Romanticism. Additionally, Robinson wrote, Cesare's costume and those of policemen in the film appear abstract, while many of the other characters seem like ordinary German clothes from the 1920s. The collaborative nature of the film's production highlights the importance that both screenwriters and set designers held in German cinema of the 1920s, although film critic Lotte H. Eisner said sets held more importance than anything else in German films at that time. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first German Expressionist film, although Brockmann and film critic Mike Budd claims it was also influenced by German Romanticism; Budd notes the film's themes of insanity and the outcry against authority are common among German Romanticism in literature, theater and the visual arts.Film scholar Vincent LoBrutto said the theater of Max Reinhardt and the artistic style of Die Brücke were additional influences on Caligari.


Janowitz originally originally intended the part of Cesare to go to his friend, actor Ernst Deutsch. Mayer wrote the part of Jane for Gilda Langer, but she died before she could take the role. The parts of Cesare and Dr. Caligari ultimately went to Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, respectively, who enthusiastically took part in many aspects of the production.  Krauss suggested changes to his own make-up and costumes, and said he suggested the elements of a top hat, cape, and walking stick with an ivory handle for his character. The actors in Caligari were conscious of the need to adapt their make-up, costumes style and appearance to match the visual style of the film. Much of the acting in German silent films at the time was already Expressionistic, mimicking the pantomimic aspects of expressionist theater.The performances of Krauss and Veidt in Caligari was typical of this style, as they both had experience in Expressionist-influenced theater, and as a result Barlow said they appear more comfortable in their surroundings in the film than the other actors. Prior to filming, Kraus and Veidt appeared on stage in the winter of 1918 in an Expressionist drama, Reinhold Goering's Seeschlacht, at the Deutsches Theater.  InCaligari, Barlow notes that "Veidt moves along the wall as if it had 'exuded' him ... more a part of a material world of objects than a human one", and Krauss "moves with angular viciousness, his gestures seem broken or cracked by the obsessive force within him, a force that seems to emerge from a constant toxic state, a twisted authoritarianism of no human scruple and total insensibility". 
Wiene asked the actors to make movements similar to dance, most prominently from Veidt, but also from Krauss, Dagover and Friedrich Feger, who played Francis.  Krauss and Veidt are the only actors whose performances match the stylization of the sets, which they achieve by concentrating their movements and facial expressions.  By contrast, Dagover had little experience in Expressionist theater, and Barlow argues her acting is less harmonious with the film's visual style. Most of the other actors besides Krauss and Veidt have a more naturalistic style. Alan, Jane and Francis play the roles of an idyllically happy trio enjoying youth, with Alan in particular the archetype of a sensitive 19th century student. Mike Budd points out realist characters in stylized settings are a common characteristic in Expressionist theater. However, Robinson notes even the performances of the more naturalistic supporting roles in Caligari have Expressionist elements, like Hans-Heinz von Twardowski's "strange, tormented face" as Alan. He also cites Feher's "large angular movements," especially in the scene where he searches the deserted fairground. Other minor roles are Expressionistic in nature, like two policemen who sit facing each other at their desks and move with exaggerated symmetry, and two servants who awaken and rise from their beds in perfect synchronization.


Shooting for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began at the end of December 1919 and concluded at the end of January 1920.  It was shot entirely in a studio without any exterior shots, which was unusual for films of the time, but dictated by the decision to give the film a stylized Expressionist visual style. The extent to which Mayer and Janowitz participated during filming is disputed. Janowitz claims the duo repeatedly refused to allow any script changes during production, and Pommer claimed Mayer was on the set for every day of filming. But Hermann Warm claimed they were never present for any of the shooting or involved in any discussions during production.
Caligari was filmed in the Lexie-Atelier film studio at Weissensee. It was the fourth to be made there, followed by Die Pest in Florenz (1919) and the two parts of Fritz Lang's The Spiders. The studio was built in 1913 for use with the Vitascope GmbH, and as a result was restrictive in scale; most of the sets used in the film do not exceed six meters in width and depth as a result. However, an understage space was provided for use as a foreground set. Certain elements from the original script had to be cut from the film due to the limited space, including a procession of gypsies, a handcart pushed by Dr. Caligari, Jane's carriage, and a chase scene involving horse-cabs. Likewise, the script called for a fairground scene with roundabouts, barrel organs, sideshow barkers, performers and menageries, none of which could be achieved in the restrictive space. Instead, the scenes use a painting of the Holstenwall town as a background, with throngs of people walking around two spinning merry-go-round props, creating the impression of a carnival. The script also made references to modern elements like telephones, telegrams and electric light, but they were eliminated during the filming, leaving the final film's setting with no indication of a specific time period.
Several scenes from the script were cut during filming, most of which were brief time lapses or transitioning scenes, or title screens deemed unnecessary. One of the more substantial scenes to be cut involved the ghost of Alan at a cemetery. The scene with the town clerk berating Dr. Caligari deviated notably from the original script, which simply called for the clerk to be "impatient". He is far more abusive in the scene as it was filmed, and is perched atop an exaggeratingly-high bench that towers over Dr. Caligari. Another deviation from the script comes in scene when Dr. Caligari first awakens Cesare, one of the most famous moments in the film. The script called for Cesare to gasp and struggle for air, then shake violently and collapse in Dr. Caligari's arms. As it was filmed, there are no such physical struggling, and instead the camera zooms in on Cesare's face as he gradually opens his eyes. The original title cards for ‘’Caligari’’ featured stylized, misshapen lettering with excessive underlinings, exclamation points and occasionally archaic spellings. The bizarre style, which matches that of the film as a whole, mimics the lettering of Expressionistic posters at the time. The original title cards were tinted in green, steely-blue and brown. Many modern prints of the film do not preserve the original lettering. 
Photography was provided by Willy Hameister, who went on to work with Wiene on several other films.  The camera does not play a large part in Caligari, and is used primarily to show the sets. The cinematography tends to alternate only between medium shots at straight-on angles and abrupt close-ups to create a sense of shock, but with few long shots or panning movement. Likewise, there is very little interscene editing, with most scenes following the other without intercutting, giving Caligari a more theatrical feel than a cinematic one. Heavy lighting is typically absent from the film, heightening the sense of darkness prevalent in the story. However, lighting is occasionally used to intensify the uneasiness created by the distortions of the sets. For example, when Cesare first awakens at the fair, a light is shone directly on a close-up of his heavily made-up face to create an unsettling glow.


Though often considered an art film by modern audiences, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was produced and marketed the same as a normal commercial production of its time period, able to target both the elite market for at as well as a more commercial horror genre audience.  The film was marketed extensively leading up to the release, with advertisements running even before the film was finished. Many posters and newspaper advertisements Most included the enigmatic phrase featured in the film, "Du must Caligari warden!", or "You must become Caligari!" Caligari premiered at the Marmorhaus movie theater in Berlin on February 26, 1920, less than one month after it was completed. The filmmakers were so nervous about the release that Erich Pommer, on his way to the theater, reportedly exclaimed, "It will be a horrible failure for all of us!" As with the making of the film, several urban legend surrounding the film's premiere. One, offered by writers Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel in The German Cinema, suggest the film was shelved "for lack of a suitable outlet", and only shown at Marmorhaus because another film had fallen through. Another suggested the theater pulled the film after only two performances because audiences demanded refunds and demonstrated against it so strongly that the theater pulled it after only two performances. This story was told by Erich Pommer, who claimed the Marmorhaus picked Caligari back up and ran it successfully for three months after he spent six months working on a publicity campaign for the film. David Robinson wrote that neither of these urban legends were true, and that the latter was fabricated by Pommer to increase his own reputation. On the contrary, Robinson said the premiere was highly successful, showing at the theater for four weeks, an unusual amount for the time, and then returning two weeks later. He said it was so well received that women in the audience screamed when Cesare opened his eyes during his first scene, and fainted during the scene when Cesare abducted Jane.

Critical response

"The German critics, almost without exception, ranged from favourable to ecstatic."
Some commentators, like critic Herbert Jhering and novelist Blaise Cendrars, objected to the presentation of the story as a madman's delusion because they felt it belittled Expressionism as an artform.
Theater critic Helmut Grosse condemned the film's visual design as clichéd and derivative, calling it a "cartoon and (a) reproduction of designs rather than from what actually took place on stage."
The New York Times (1921): Likened it to modernist art, comparing the film's sets to Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and said the film "gives dimensions and meaning to shape, making it an active part of the story, instead of merely the conventional and inert background", which was key to the film's "importance as a work of cinematography."
Variety (1921): Compared it to an Edgar Allan Poe story... praising the direction and "perfect tempo" of the film, as well as the sets that "squeeze and turn and adjust the eye, and through the eye the mentality."
Albert Lewin: Caligari is "the only serious picture, exhibited in America so far, that in anything like the same degree has the authentic thrills and shock of art."
Abel Gance"Superb" and "What a lesson to all directors!"
René Clair"Overthrew the realist dogma" of filmmaking.
Louis Delluc: The film has compelling rhythm..."At first slow, deliberately laborious, it attempts to irritate. Then when the zigzag motifs of the fairground start turning, the pace leaps forward, agitato, accelerando, and only leaves off at the word 'End', as abruptly as a slap in the face."
Jean Epstein: "A prize example of the abuse of décor in the cinema" and it "represents a grave sickness of cinema."
Jean Cocteau"The first step towards a grave error which consists of flat photographic of eccentric decors, instead of obtaining surprised by means of the camera."
Sergei Eisenstein especially disliked Caligari: A "combination of silent hysteria, particoloured canvases, daubed flats, painted faces, and the unnatural broken gestures and action of monstrous chimaeras."


Popular posts from this blog

PRODUCTION TIPS: What is a Loan-Out Company? And Should I Form One?

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: How Tarantino Got Reservoir Dogs Funded and Why It's Worth Knowing People Who Know Celebrities

CASE STUDY: A Look at Some of TV's Most Successful PODs