The Birth of the Horror Film: German Expressionism and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

“rarely before or since has a body of films exerted such a pull towards verbal paraphrase, in which epithets like ‘dark’ and ‘demonic’, ‘twisted’, ‘haunted’ and ‘tormented’ leap onto the page.”

(Elsaesser, 2000:19)

Robert Weine’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is unanimously agreed to be both a prime example of German Expressionist cinema, and also a seminal horror film. However, the film is also something of an enigma, combining as it does, a mixture of gothic, psychologically motivated narrative, and Expressionist set design. The film’s influence on the horror genre can certainly be attributed to this gothic narrative, but the influence of it’s Expressionist aesthetic has to be considered far more sceptically than it has been by past theorists. The question of why the Expressionist aesthetic influenced Film Noir so strongly, and not horror, has to be asked when considering the film’s legacy as horror.

This essay will attempt to address the legacy of the film within the horror genre, from its origins in Modernism, the Expressionist influence in its scenography and perspective, and the Gothic influence in its narrative and themes, specifically those themes which have helped formulate some of the iconic elements of the horror genre, such as the monster, the male anxiety, and the notion of the ‘other’.


Modernism and German Expressionism: Origins and a legacy of Misuse

“Expressionism is well on the way to having so many vague meanings attached to it that it could become meaningless, and also useless as an analytic tool, as has happened with “realism”.”

(Salt, 1979:119)

It has been the unfortunate habit of film scholars to allocate the term ‘Expressionism’ to any film under the sun which happens to make interesting use of lighting techniques. Dietrich Scheunemann claims that in both Caligari and Morn to Midnight, “[c]ontrary to mythical rumours, camera work and lighting do not play any significant role in either of these films”. Instead he claims that their real achievement “lies somewhere else…In overthrowing realist dogma, which resulted in everything not meeting realist expectations being labelled expressionist” (Scheunemann, 2006:2-6). A perfect example of this misuse of this term is the film which we were shown on this course as an example of ‘German Expressionism’. F.W. Murnau’s 1919 film Nosferatu is not an expressionist film. Murnau himself railed against the label at the time of the film’s release (McGilligan, 1997:44).


Barry Salt has perhaps done more than anyone to attempt to rectify the endemic misinterpretation of the term ‘German Expressionism’ in reference to early German cinema. His essay concludes that in all, there are only around six films which truly deserve the adjective, and also refining the period of ‘Expressionism’ to a mere five years, between 1919 and 1924 (Salt, 1979:119-22 ). Dietrich Scheunemann, in his recent reassessment of German Expressionism, also concurs with Salt, asserting that “[w]e have to familiarise ourselves with the idea that expressionism was a short-lived episode lasting just four years” (Scheunemann, 2006:25). The films Salt identifies are Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920). Genuine (1920), Von morgens bis mitternachts (From Morn to Midnight, 1920), Torgus (1921), Raskolnikov (1923) and Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924). Salt measures these films by their utilisation of Expressionist painting and drama as an influence in their features (Salt, 1979:119-22).

The German film industry re-fashioned Modernism’s formal and stylistic innovation for its own purposes, and Expressionism provided the most material for experimentation with perception, subjectivity and objectivity (Budd, 1990:25). The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was inarguably the most successful example of this selective use of Expressionism in film, retaining a conventional narrative structure whilst wowing the audience with its breathtaking Expressionist scenography.

Painting with Darkness and Light: Chiaroscuro and Expressionist Sceneography

“it was their expressionist nature which impelled many a German director of photography to breed shadows as rampant as weeds…These efforts were designed to bathe all scenery in an unearthly illumination marking it as scenery of the soul.”

(Kracauer, 1947:75)

According to both Thomas Elsaesser and Lott Eisner, lighting and the style of chiaroscuro (extreme high and low tones) is possibly the single most important element of cinematic Expressionism (Elsaesser, 2000:25, Eisner, 1969:17-20) . However, Dietrich Scheunemann disagrees, claiming that many of  the films described under the banner of Expressionist are simply not, and no amount of lighting will make them so. Also, in Scheunemann’s opinion, the cinematography of Caligari is also distinctly unimpressive. He instead recognises that “[i]t is through the curved walls, oblique windows, slanting doors and strange radial patterns on the floor that the film establishes its nightmarish atmosphere” (Scheunemann, 2006:136-7).


The influence of Expressionism in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was restricted primarily to the film’s scenography, drawing on influences from both the art and the theatre worlds. However the stories and debates around the decision to use such an aesthetic have become something of a legend. According to some the psychologically inspired sets were meant as a critique on the growing fashion for psychoanalysis. Others have claimed that it was based on a misinterpretation of the name Kubin for the word Cubism (Scheunemann, 2006:135).

Schnemann appears to shudder at the thought, predicting that “[h]ad he been commissioned  with the design of the sets for Dr. Caligari, as the authors had suggested, the birth of expressionist film might never have happened…It would have lacked…any trait of expressionist abstraction” (Scheunemann, 2006:135). One thing which has become clear with the recent discovery of the original scripts of the film, is that the narrative and the style of the script display no overtly expressionistic traits, and also that there is a total absence of any indication that the aesthetic of the mise-en-scene should be expressionistic. Schunemann posits that,

“The fact that Janowitz suggested Kubin as art director for the film, adds further support to the assumption that the authors did not plan an expressionist work of art, let alone a story of political or social critique

(Scheunemann, 2006:135)

Bordwell and Thompson use the sequence where Cesare finally expires in the forests, as an example of a complimentary compositional style where by characters  do not exist apart from the setting, and that “all of the elements of the mise-en-scene interact graphically to create an overall composition”. Cesare’s body crumples to mirror the dark, twisting trees surrounding him, “his body and outstretched arms echoing the shapes of the trees’ trunks and branches” (Bordwell and Thompson, 2001:407-8). Another example is the striped pattern in Doctor Caligari’s hair which is mirrored on his office walls, and in the insane asylum, as though an indicator of his almost omnipotent presence in the film world.

However, in their rather overconfident assertion, referring to the asylum ‘framing device’ of the film, that “[i]n Caligari, the Expressionist stylisation functions to convey the distorted viewpoint of a madman. We see the world as the hero does” (Bordwell and Thompson, 2001:407-8) is woefully simplistic, and is an example of the mis-readings and debates around the framing device and the perspective of the film.

Myths and Misreadings: Perspectives and the ‘Framing Device’ Debate

Modernism as a whole was concerned with notions of perception and subjectivity. In cinema especially, which was born during the height of the Modernist movement, they were two of its most fundamental concerns (Elsaesser, 2000:40). The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari uses an explicit framing device, that of the asylum at both the beginning and the end of the film, which places the bulk of the story within Francis’s mind. The Expressionist aesthetic of the story he tells, is apparently supposed to differentiate between the real world of the asylum, and the insane world of the story. However, this is not the case, because the Expressionist aesthetic continues into the final asylum sequence, therefore blurring the boundary between the normal and the insane world.

In order to understand this apparent inconsistency in the framing device, it is important to consider the history of the decisions around its implementation. The screen writers Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer originally attacked the director Weine for adding the framing device of the lunatic asylum, originally Fritz Lang’s idea for the film, because it put their drama “into a box” (Janowitz, 1990:237) and effectively turned the heroic character of Francis, hunting down a murderer, into a madman (Scheunemann, 2006:145).

According to Kracauer, this change effectively converts almost the film into the hallucination of a mad man, not a revolutionary story of rebellion against authority. As Kracauer puts it,

“it perverted, if not reversed, their intrinsic intentions. While the original story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene’s Caligari glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness. A revolutionary film was thus turned into a conformist one…”

(Kracauer, 1947:66-7).

Kracauer, despite his habit of attributing themes of Weimar films to the psychology of the entire German nation, is accurate in his recognition of the themes of male anxiety and rebellion against a corrupt authority. These themes originated in German Expressionism’s roots in German Gothic and Romantic literature.

A Gothic Tradition: Caligari and the Narrative Structure of Horror

“‘Gothic’ fiction is the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves”

(Punter, 1996:1)

The term ‘Gothic’ is a problematic one. According to Peter Hutchings it is almost as vague and misused as the term ‘German Expressionism’ and is often used interchangeably with the term ‘horror’ in the same way ‘German Expressionism’ and ‘Weimar Cinema’ have been. Hutchings claims that apart from the more popular conception of what Gothic means, as described by Steve Punter in the above sentence, the term Gothic is also often used to denote horror films reliant on period settings, like Hammer horror (Hutchings, 2004:10-11).

The well-spring of Gothic and Romantic literature was to provide Weimar cinema with its most fundamental feature, its narrative structure. Noel Carroll, in his essay The Philosophy of Horror, maps out the traditional narrative structure of the horror film in three stages. The first he names the ‘Onset phase’ where a disorder is created, generally in the form of a monster (Carroll,1990:20). In Caligari, this disorder is created with the appearance of Doctor Caligari in Holstenwall.

The second Caroll calls the ‘Discovery phase’, where the characters of the story discover that the disorder has occurred (Carroll,1990:20). In Caligari this would be when Francis realises that it is Doctor Caligari who has murdered his friend Alain using the somnambulist Cesare.

The third phase he calls the ‘Disruption phase’, where the characters destroy the source of the disorder and restore normality (Carroll,1990:20). Interestingly, this phase does not occur as simply as this in Caligari. Not only are we give a false ending, with Caligari captured and belted into a straight jacket, apparently conforming to Carroll’s formulae, but then we are given the real ending, in the asylum, where we are not wholly sure that normality has been restored, due to the continuation of the Expressionist aesthetic into this normality.

In this map, Carroll also identifies three key icons of the Horror genre, one being the Monster itself, including the forces which unleash it. The second is the ‘Bad Place’ where the monster is created and unleashed from. The third is the notion of ‘Normality’, which in horror is generally associated with heterosexual family relationships and communities (Carroll,1990:20-32). It is in this notion of Normality which is a key thematic opposition in the horror genre is established, the boundary between the known and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious.

Male Anxiety: Horror and the Oedipus Complex

“there can be little doubt that a modernist ideology involving male subjectivity and urban darkness or primitivism helped to condition a great deal of art in the post-war decades.”

(Naremore, 1998:171)

One of the horror genre’s most important inheritances from its Gothic/Romantic roots, was the theme of the tormented male protagonist, beset by psychological and supernatural forces. Elsaesser singles out “sibling rivalries, overpowering father figures, absent mothers, problematic ‘princesses’ or impossible object choices” as sources of conflict. This theme of the male struggle against authority and father figures were particularly pronounced in Weimar films (Elsaesser, 2006:40-1).


Elsaesser also attributes other prominent Oedipal features, such as protagonist’s suicidal states of mind (The Student of Prague), the frequent representations of ‘the other’ as monstrous, the repeated incest motif as explicit motivation (Backstairs, Sylvester, Shattered) and abuses of power and manipulation in the exercise of legal or paternal authority (Waxworks, Dr Mabuse, Nosferatu, The Golem) to an underlying dynamic based around the “instability of the paternal instance and a blank or absence around the place of the mother” (Elsaesser, 2000:73-4).

Kracauer, despite his habit of attributing the cinematic spectator with the German people as a whole, correctly recognises the preoccupation of early 1920s films with specifically male anxieties, and how those anxieties were centred on vision, perception and symbolic castration (Kracauer, 1947:115-127).

Gods and Monsters: Caligari and the ‘Other’

“they are un-natural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme; they violate it…monsters are in a certain sense challenges to the foundations of a culture’s way of thinking.”

(Carroll, 1990:34)

The ‘monster’ of the horror film is by far its most important feature. Without the monster, and the threat it imposes on the ‘normal’ world, there would be no ‘horror’ to speak of. Hutchings asks the question “What makes a monster a monster?” and answers that, “simply being dangerous is not in itself enough to bestow monster status…these monsters should not only be dangerous but ‘impure’ or ‘unnatural’ as well” (Hutchings, 2004:34-5).

Jackie Stacey in her essay ‘She is not Herself’, explores the theme of teratology – the scientific study of monsters and marvels – and also the motif of the double, in the horror and sci-fi genres, especially the theme of abjection, and what she calls “the monstrosity of sameness” (Stacey, 2003:3-7). This motif of the artificially created and programmed double or the doppelganger has been integral to the horror genre from its very inception, stemming from its gothic roots, and the motif of the doppelganger.

According to Scheunemann the first doppelganger of the film is Cesare, and he disagrees with Kracauer that Cesare is merely “a tool or a victim of Caligari”, but instead he believes that Cesare is the “personification of Caligari’s impulsive drives. He acts out his master’s urge for revenge, his lust for murder.” (Scheunemann, 2006:130). The second doppelganger is Caligari himself, who, according to Schnemann, is “an offspring of a gothic tale, a late descendent of those split personalities of nineteenth-century Romantic literature who are haunted by their shadows and alter egos” (Scheunemann, 2006:130).

It is the idea of ‘Otherness’ which is the key to defining the horrific element of the monster. Robin Wood explores the theme of ‘Otherness’ in horror. Wood posits that the ‘other’ is a project of a repressive society in which powerful groups impose or project identities upon subordinate groups (Wood, 1986:73). However Hutchings warns that over emphasis on this interpretation results in the assumption that “a horror film deals with notions of the Other because that is what horror films do, and if a film is not doing this in some way, then it is probably not a horror film at all” (Hutchings, 2004:102).

Hutchings attributes the traditional destruction of the monster at the end of most horror films to this preoccupation with social repression, “delivering”, he accuses, “their monsters to victimhood as those monsters are defeated and/or destroyed by the forces of good” (Hutchings, 2004:157). In Caligari Cesare is seen to suffer before he finally expires and collapses, dying in a very Romantic-Gothic manner, immediately after he has been emancipated from master-magician “when he becomes aware of the beauty of Jane” (Scheunemann, 2006:130).

The Legacy of Caligari: Film Noir or Horror?

The influence of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari on the horror genre is not its Expressionist aesthetic. The film’s world is certainly a terrifying place, an external physicalisation of a nightmare, it is horrific, and the film deserves its place as part of the birth of the horror genre, but its influence on the genre must not be confused with what the film is famous for – its Expressionism. The true influence of the film is what it shares in common with many other Weimar films which are not Expressionist, though they have been mistakenly referred to as such. These films share a common gothic, Romantic narrative structure, and themes like the monster, the male anxiety, the ‘other’. It is these themes which have lived on to shape horror today.


(all referencing in accordance with the Harvard system)

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (2001) Film Art: An Introduction (6th ed) New York: McGraw-Hill.

Budd, Mike (1990) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

Carroll, Noel (1990) The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. London: Routledge

Eisner, Lotte (1969) The Haunted Screen. London. Thames and Hudson

Elsaesser, Thomas (1997) ‘Germany: The Weimar Years’. In The Oxford History of World Cinema: The Definitive History of Cinema Worldwide, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, pp.136-151. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Elsaesser, Thomas (2000) Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. Oxon: Routledge

Elsaesser, Thomas (2006) ‘Weimar Cinema, Mobile Selves, and Anxious Males: Kracauer and Eisner Revisited’. In Expressionist Film: New Perspectives. Edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, pp.33-71. New York: Camden House

Hutchings, Peter (2004) The Horror Film. Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Janowitz, Hans (exerpts) ‘Caligari – The story of a famous story’. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Texts, Contexts, Histories. Edited by Mike Budd (1990) pp. 224f. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Kracauer, Seigfried (1947) From Caligari to Hitler: a Psychological History of the German Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (2004 version, revised and expanded, edited by Leonardo Quaresima)

McGilligan, Patrick (1997) Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. London: Faber and Faber.

Naremore, James (1998) More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. London: University of California Press.

Punter, D. (1996) The Literature of Terror, vol. 1: The Gothic Tradition. London: Longman

Salt, Barry (1979) ‘From Caligari to Who?’. In Sight and Sound. Vol. 48, pp. 119-23

Scheunemann, Dietrich (2006) ‘Activating the Differences: Expressionist Film and Early Weimar Cinema’. In Expressionist Film: New Perspectives. Edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, pp.1-31. New York: Camden House

Scheunemann, Dietrich (2006) ‘The Double, the Décor, and the Framing Device: Once More on Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. In Expressionist Film: New Perspectives. Edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, pp.125-156. New York: Camden House

Stacey, Jackie (2003) ‘She is Not Herself: the Deviant Relations of Alien Resurrection’. Screen, 44:3

Wood, Robin (1986) Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia

University Press


Backstairs, Leopold Jessner and Paul Leni (1921)

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Robert Wiene, 1920.

Dr Mabuse, Fritz Lang (1922)

Genuine, Robert Weine (1920)

The Golem, Paul Wegener (1914)

Morn to Midnight, (1920)

Nosferatu. F.W. Murnau (1922)

Raskolnikov, Robert Weine (1923)

Shattered, Lupu Pick (1921)

The Student of Prague, Stellan Rye (1913)

Sylvester, Lupu Pick (1923)

Torgus, Hans Kobe (1920)

Waxworks, Paul Leni (1924)


6 Responses to “The Birth of the Horror Film: German Expressionism and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari”

  1. Thanks. Some insightful and useful stuff.

  2. very helpful information, well written

  3. For an interesting but potted history of horror, the BBC are running this…

  4. Very interesting read!

  5. Enjoyed reading this a lot. I agree with what you suggest by addressing the unclear bits in regards to all those terms- expressionism, gothic, and maybe even modernism in general (which I am covering in my thesis at the moment). I think your essay is rectifying and original, and I am glad I found someone who shares the same view on the age of so many ‘ism’s. Just a quick comment- there’s a minor typo in the first paragraph of ‘gothic’ section. The quote you meant should be from David Punter, not Steve.. I think it is mistake- you made it correct in bibliography 🙂

  6. An excellent essay, well done! The theme of otherness I too believe, is omnipresent in Caligari even though it takes different forms. On the one hand being the sinister mesmerist/murderer and on the other a benevolent psychiatrist, Caligari is certainly an ambiguous figure, even when it comes to his monstrosity. Perhaps this also fits with the theme of the doppelganger you mentioned above.

    I really enjoyed your article to its entirety thus I would like to ask if you would mind me citing you in my current thesis? I am working on a typology of Expressionist monster and some of the ideas you express in this essay I find extremely interesting and all too worth of further academic discussion.

    Thank you in advance.

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