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Caligari digested

Last week I asked you to watch The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and consider a few questions about the film. I also re-watched the film, which I am always surprised by.

I love how the dischordant and disturbing music that begins at the film’s title sequence, continues throughout. It makes me think I won’t be able to bear to watch the film, but the music soon becomes background: an unsettling and essential element to my enjoyment. I am reminded of the soundtrack in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: another film score so synonymous, that it cannot be heard without conjuring up thoughts of its original context.

Watching Caligari in the 21st century, it is impossible not to place scenes in context of other seminal horror films whose creators took inspiration from German Expressionist cinema. Above, you can see the similarity in the aesthetic treatment of the staircase in Edward Scissorhands. Below; the classic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho takes on an uncanny resemblance to Mr Alan’s murder in Caligari.

Other scenes I find striking include the one in which Caligari spoon-feeds Cesare in his cabinet, like Doctor Frankenstein nursing his monster. I am also amused by the ever-incompetent police – a common narrative feature in many horror films to this day.


The most shocking element of the film for me is the twist ending – the first ever used in cinema – which serves to further disorientate and disturb the viewer. The lunatic is in charge of the asylum, and not only that, he is able to manipulate an unsuspecting, naturally benevolent patient to commit murder. It is hard not to draw a symbolic connection between this, and the kind of brainwashing the public might experience when in the grip of a power-crazed political leader.

Here is a clip about the film by Mark Gatiss, an actor and screenwriter who presented a fantastic three-part programme on the History of Horror for the BBC.

“What if film could project what was inside of us: our emotions, fantasies and fears?” Kevin B. Lee on The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

I asked you to watch and review The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari because it is a hugely influential film. As such, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari has been the subject of, or a feature within, many critical essays. Below are a few examples.

  1. How the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari Invented the Horror Movie by Kevin B. Lee
  2. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film by Siegfried Kracauer
  3. The Limits of the Human: Vampires, Zombies, Serial Killers and the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari – a talk by Professor Richard Dyer

I put together this list to introduce the difference between the two essential components of a critical essay: a subject and a context.


The above essay titles all feature The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari as their main subject. What are the different contexts of each essay?

These examples prove how a single subject matter can be looked at in different contexts to create alternative paths of enquiry and areas of interest for an essay writer. Certain examples and genres of art are most commonly placed in a context relating to their most obvious themes: in the example of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari the most common contexts include:

  • Psychology: insanity, humanity, paranoia, control
  • Horror: The birth/growth of a new genre
  • History: The rise of Nazism in Germany
  • Aesthetics: the influence on other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, or movements, like Film Noir

The list of Cabinet of Doctor Caligari essay titles show you how one film can be looked at in a number of different contexts. It also shows you the sort of common questions you might expect to be considered within the context of a critical essay.

Critical writing perhaps most often takes the form of a comparative study: that is, most literally and unpoetically, the study of a comparison between two or more subjects and contexts. A critical comparison might:

  • Place a subject within a context and argue the case for it belonging there
  • Place more than one subject within a common context and compare their relationships to it, and each other
  • Discuss how subject one, in context of x, led to the creation of subject two


Considering the sorts of contexts and questions we have looked at relating to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, return to your list of subjects that inspire you from last week, including:

  • The objects/books/images that you collect/hoard
  • The artists/art movements/genres you admire
  • The sort of work you are making or intending to make on this course

Working in pairs, help each other to identify different contexts relating to these subjects and/or their key themes, and different questions that might connect these subjects and contexts. Remember, at this stage, you don’t have to come up with a final essay title, we’re just getting used to thinking around a topic.

To help you get into the right mood, here are a few verbs often found in stellar essay titles stolen from a list on the fab Royal Literary Fund website which has lots of important essay writing information and advice.


German Expressionist cinema on Mubi
Mark Gatiss ‘A History of Horror’ on YouTube


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