8. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari


February 26, 1920
Directed by Robert Wiene

Listen to any story about the Great War – the field, the trenches, the no-man’s land, and it becomes clear that the hell can never be adequately described. It’s too horrible. Those stories are always about the army, though. For anyone in the British or German navy, the story is much different.

Built up by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz to threaten Britain’s oceanic superiority, the German Navy was never enough to challenge Britain, only enough to bother her. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, if you know anything about her, would never cede the seas to another nation, which was probably enough to convince her to declare war on Germany once neutral Belgium had been invaded.

The Royal Navy blockaded the continent, and Germany’s pathetic fleet was trapped very close to port for all of 1914 and 1915. The only major fleet action Germany tried was the Battle of Jutland in June 1916. It was damaging to the Royal Navy, but not decisive, and then it was back to shore for the rest of the year, which was turning into a very bad winter.

Stuck on the ships with a three-hour call, suffering the caprice of the clueless aristocratic officer class, endlessly drilling, bringing on coal, stoking the fire, never receiving adequate rations, German sailors weren’t warriors. They were workers. And they did what workers do when pushed to the breaking point. Strike. Which in naval terms, is a mutiny.


By September 1918 it’s clear to Erich Ludendorff, who was essentially the real ruler of the Reich, that the Spring Offensive he had bet all of his last chips on was a failure. An armistice would need to be called at once. To the enlisted Kriegsmarine, this was wonderful news. The war would be over.

The admiralty was horrified. The entire navy would surely be scrapped by the victorious allies and the officer class would be, well they couldn’t even imagine such a prospect. Suffice to say their entire way of life was ruined. There is only one honorable thing for a doomed military aristocracy to do in this situation, and it’s to launch a final suicide mission. Take down as much of the Royal Navy as possible in a final blaze of glory.

But at the end of October, when the orders to sail came, the German sailors refused. Strike. The admirals began taking prisoners of the striking sailors, but took so many they had nowhere to put them. They sent a bunch back to Kiel, who landed at the port, recruited workers into their movement, and continued their strike. They held daily demonstrations at the Trade Union Hall and the nearby Waldwiese, which grew bigger each day.

On November 3rd, three thousand men gathered at the Waldwiese, worked themselves up with speeches, and made their way to the prison, where they stormed the guards and released the inmates. They marched around the town, disarming local law enforcement and stopping at the open taverns to drink and recruit. They were finally stopped in the Brunswicker Strasse by Lieutenant Steinhäuser’s patrol, who fired at the crowd. The crowd responded by throwing rocks, but were soon surrounded by Steinhäuser’s reinforcements and dispersed. Eight strikers died that evening.

The next morning, Captain Bartels gave a disciplinary lecture to the 1st Torpedo division about the previous day’s events, angering the crowd of sailors until they bum-rushed him and occupied the armory, handed out rifles, and formed a Sailors Council. Division after division revolted, and by 14:00 the local Kiel government gave in. Majority Social Democrat Gustav Noske was sent in to deal with it. The sailors, thrilled to see a Democrat, elected him chairman of their council, and he accepted the title.

On November 5th, they flew the Red Flag. What was left of the German Navy began a blockade of Kiel. By November 7th the docks, streetcars, patrols, and banks were all back to work, and the flag was back to normal. But many concessions had already been won, and the Revolution spread to other ports, then down the rivers, and it made its way toward Berlin. There was no one with the power to stop any of them.

On November 9th the revolution reached Berlin, and the striking workers, sailors, and soldiers forced the Kaiser to abdicate the imperial throne and flee to Holland. On November 11th, the Armistice was signed. Everyone was marching around Berlin, declaring something or other. They all knew the war was over, the Second Reich was over, but no one knew who had the most support, except as far as it could be discerned from the streets, through marches and fights.


Friedrich Ebert, head of the Majority Social Democratic Party (MSDP) attempted to form a Provisional Government, a coalition of Majority and Independent Social Democrats that would prepare for a democratic election of a National Assembly. But there were also thousands of Workers, Sailors, and Soldiers Councils, popping up everywhere. The support for the Councils was from those who just wanted the fucking war to be over already (something which had been prevented single-handedly by Ludendorff and the rest of the German Supreme Command, who refused to end the war without annexing Belgium.) Now that the war was definitely over, would the revolution continue?

Ebert’s Provisional Government reached an agreement with the Supreme Command of the German Army to facilitate a demobilization and return to law and order. Any soldiers whose families were still alive went back to them as soon as possible. Anyone with nowhere to go wandered the street, experiencing an unfathomable mix of emotions.

Many of these guys joined the Freikorps, which were volunteer units and independent militias. Complaining, drinking, streetfighting, and eventually making plans. Freikorps members knew exactly who to blame, fear, hate, and fight. First, the Bolsheviks. Then the Jews. And of course the Democrats in the Government who had presided over the terrible Armistice, most of them were obviously Jews and Bolsheviks.

Ebert’s government needed the Freikorps as a defensive force against the Workers and Soldiers Councils, which saw the Revolution as far from over. You can see the problem. The Democratic Government relies on an army that loathes the Democratic Government, and wants nothing more than its utter humiliation and destruction.

The men and women who made up the Workers, Sailors, and Soldiers Councils and their supporters refused to participate in any assembly that would do such a thing. Represented by Roxa Luxemburg and the Spartacusbund, they seized the Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger press and began publishing issues of Die Rote Fahne, gathering support, consolidating the astonishing gains that had been made in the past few weeks.

On December 16th, the Executive Council of the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council called a First Reich Congress of Councils in Berlin. This Congress of the Left was decisively won by Ebert and the Majority Socialists, those sell-out Liberals! The Spartacusbund decided to split off once again for the New Year, forming the KPD, or German Communist Party, which was ruled by a Central Committee of twelve people – ten men, Rosa Luxemburg, and Käte Duncker.


January 1919 brought the Left’s great blunder. The Proletarian Revolution arrived, but under desperate conditions that meant only disaster. Council-supporting Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn was fired at the behest of the Prussian state government on January 4th. The KPD Central Committee met and decided to demonstrate the following day. On the 6th, the demonstration grew into the largest mass action ever – possessing great, perhaps decisive power – but the leadership failed to act. No commands were given. The crowd hung around for a while, but the demonstrations went nowhere at this point, and the government, sensing the weakness of those who had been foolish enough to demand a revolution but too afraid to command when the time came, had sufficient opportunity to rally together Freikorps as well as the remains of the Regular Army.

The Social Democrats ordered the Freikorps to break up the revolution, which they did pretty easily over the following week. The entire momentum had been completely squandered. On January 15th, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured by the Freikorps, interrogated, tortured, and murdered. Luxemburg’s body was thrown into a canal and discovered later that year.

On January 19th the elections for the National Assembly were held, and with a scant 22 out of 422 seats, the Left’s adventure was over. The National Assembly met at Weimar in February, and the SPD, Zentrum, and DDP formed a cabinet. The Weimar Republic was now the law of the land, just in time to hear their loser’s terms from the Allies.

France, Britain, and the United States presented their final demands in May, and they were so bad that the first cabinet of the Reich immediately resigned. The Treaty of Versailles was famously punitive: reparations, territory, and disarmament. And all of this demanded while the hunger blockade was still in full effect.


One of Germany’s mega-corporations, Deutsche Bank, which had lost huge amounts of assets in the Treaty of Versailles, was given Ufa, the film studio formed by Erich Ludendorff himself in 1917 out of existing German studios. Now that the war was over, it was a chance to win back the foreigners, to show them how the famous deutsches Kunst can transform cinema. A chance for Germany to present itself artistically as a defeated, destroyed nation.

For most of 1919, the German film world was ruled by Ernst Lubitsch, a stylistic pageanteer, accompanied with an array of sexploitation films (there was no censorship board at this time). German cinema’s breakthrough didn’t arrive until February 1920, with the premiere at the Marmorhaus of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Germany gave the world the horror film. Not just crime fiction, or detective fiction, or gothic fiction, but an entirely new genre – perhaps the most crucial one for the new art-form of cinema,  brought to artistic focus one year after it was brought into (relative) theoretical focus by Sigmund Freud.

Our hero, Franz, lives in Holstenwall, a rural northern village, which is one day visited by a traveling fair. Dr. Caligari arrives with the fair – his strange black, outdated costume with its enormous hat and cape, his perfectly circular black glasses, the combed back white hair. The first time I saw him enter the shot, I wanted to be him – a source of incredible power, accountable to no one.

Iris out from a single spinning wheel, the carousel, and there’s another on the left side, spinning in the other direction. Behind these are the painted set of the town, seen as a towering mound. And before the carnival is the foreground. Three entirely separate layers, which look completely unrealistic but are entirely compelling. The danger and drama are always right there on the screen. There are no squares or rectangles in this vaguely remembered rural outpost, all lines are bent into triangles, forming daggers and spires.

Dr. Caligari barks his attraction. Cesare has slept his entire life and will wake in minutes. He stands, eyes shut. All black. The inky blackness of sleep. And when Cesare after great exertion open his eyes, he becomes a center of dark erotic power. Only Cesare is able to grant Franz his darkest desire, the death of his friend but actually rival Alan. It’s not an act. This is a real somnambulist, who only wakes for a few seconds at a time in fairground attractions. But this power has been unleashed onto the small town of Holstenwall. The acts pass by in a flurry of images, a panic where nothing is reliable but danger is certain. Finally, We end up in the hospital lobby, a strange room of arches.

Is Dr. Caligari a doctor, or a patient, or a tyrant, or a madman? The plots twists either hide or reveal that the answer is all of these. The mad tyrant is both doctor and patient, symptom and vector. Caligari is the cruel abuse of power – the intellectual, medical authority that has become a tyrant. Caligari – it’s the idea that drives the man insane. Du musst Caligari werden, the words repeatedly printed on the walls, the air, the entire field of vision.


After the premiere, the chaos continued. and Freikorps forces eventually marched on Berlin on March 13th – the Kapp Putsch. This time the Government called on the workers to save the nation. There was a successful General Strike in Berlin on the 14th. It spread to a strike all over the Reich on the 15th, forcing Kapp and his army out of power. But now that the Left had gotten started again, it kept going. By March 20th they had formed Coucils. and the strike would again have to be brutally suppressed. But now the message is clear to all, far-left and far-right, and any that dare to remain in the disputed no-mans-land of the center. Political violence works, even when you’re not sure who the enemy is.

These blue city streets aren’t safe.


  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Texts, Contexts, Histories. Edited by Mike Budd. Rutgers University Press, 1990.
  • Dobryden, Paul. “23 May 1920: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari Brings Aesthetic Modernism to the Fairground” A New History of German Cinema. Camden House, 2012.
  • Eyck, Erich. Eine Geschichte der Weimarer Republik. E. Rentsch Verlag, 1956. English translation by Harlan P. Hanson and Robert G.L. Waite.
  • Freud, Sidmund. Das Unheimliche. 1919.
  • Horn, Daniel. The German Naval Mutinies of World War I. Rutgers University Press, 1969.
  • Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. Princeton University Press, 1947.
  • Robinson, David. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 2nd Ed. British Film Institute, 1997. 2nd Edition Palgrave MacMillian, 2013.
  • Waldman, Eric. The Spartacist Uprising of 1919 and the Crisis of the German Socialist Movement: A study of the relation of political theory and party practice. Marquette University Press, 1958.

One thought on “8. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

  1. Pingback: 29. Bronenosets Potyomkin | The Silent Age

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