Robert Wiene Essay - Critical Essays

Wiene, Robert


Robert Wiene 1881-1938

German film director and screenwriter.

Wiene is best known for Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), one of the most famous silent films ever made. Distinctive for its highly stylized sets and acting techniques, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represents both the earliest and the most complete manifestation of German Expressionism in film. Critics have variously characterized it as an extremely influential film that has inspired countless later filmmakers or as an anomaly in film history, a unique work with few imitators.

Biographical Information

Wiene was born in Sasku, Saxony, a region of eastern Germany. His father was a well known actor in Dresden, and Wiene's college education was in theater history. His career in film began in 1914 as a scriptwriter for the independent producer Oskar Messter. During the First World War, Wiene directed his first films, which were primarily sentimental melodramas starring Henny Porten, who became known as "the darling of the German silent cinema." The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made in 1919 from a script by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, and was initially assigned by producer Erich Pommer to director Fritz Lang. Unable to direct due to a prior commitment, Lang proposed major script revisions to his replacement, Wiene, who endorsed them despite the objections of Mayer and Janowitz. Wiene also differed with the screenwriters in the choice of set designer. Mayer had suggested that Alfred Kubin, an illustrator and writer with a hallucinatory aesthetic vision, design the sets, but Wiene, in the interest of keeping production costs to a minimum, instead chose Walter Riohrig, Hermann Warm, and Walter Reimann—three prominent artists and designers in the Expressionist movement—who conceived ideas that could be realized inexpensively. Integrating the visual designs of these artists with the script's narrative, Wiene developed an acting style to complement both and guided the production of what is considered the first great horror film. Although he enjoyed a long and prolific career, Wiene never repeated the success he achieved with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In 1934 Wiene left Germany to avoid Nazi persecution and settled in France. He died in 1938 while working on a film called Ultimatum.

Major Works

Wiene's reputation rests almost exclusively on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film opens with a young man named Francis sitting in a garden telling another man a story about Jane, a woman with whom he was once romantically involved. What follows is the visualization of Francis's story. A fair has come to the town of Holstenwall, and a doctor named Caligari applies to a local official for permission to show his "creature," a somnambulist named Cesare. The official grants him permission, but does so in a rude, humiliating way. That night the official is murdered. At the fair the next day, Francis, his friend Alan, and Jane enter Caligari's tent. Seeing that Cesare is making predictions about the future, Alan asks: "How long shall I live?" Cesare answers "until dawn" and that night sneaks into Alan's room and kills him. Suspicious of Caligari, Francis investigates Alan's death as well as other recent mysterious murders. On visiting Caligari's tent one night, he sees what he thinks is Cesare sleeping in a coffin. At the same time, however, Cesare is shown sneaking into Jane's bedroom; unable to bring himself to kill her, he abducts her and flees across the rooftops of Holstenwall. Francis and the police find that both Cesare and Caligari are missing. Francis also discovers that Caligari is really the director of a local insane asylum, and a search of his office reveals that he has modeled himself after an eighteenth-century hypnotist who used one of his subjects to commit a series of murders. Meanwhile, Cesare, still carrying Jane, has been chased through town by an angry mob and dies of exhaustion. Francis confronts Caligari with the corpse of his somnambulist, whereupon the doctor deteriorates into raving lunacy and is placed in a straitjacket. The narrative then returns to Francis in the garden, which is revealed to be part of Caligari's asylum, where Francis is an inmate. The story he told is thus revealed to have been the hallucination of a madman. Ending on a note of hope, a kindly looking Caligari declares that he now knows how to cure Francis.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari introduces themes, characters, and styles of lighting, set design, and acting that not only became staples of horror cinema but also influenced other genres as well. For example, the figure of an odd, sinister stranger who comes to town with a grotesque assistant began with Caligari and Cesare and became familiar to movie audiences through Frankenstein, Dracula, and related horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, the presentation of madness received its first major cinematic treatment in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and critics have observed that much of the film's power to terrify derives from its emphasis on the fragility of identity and the tenuous nature of reason. Indeed, Siegfried Kracauer has argued that the themes of irrationality and restored authority in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reflect a "mass psychological predisposition" in the German people to accept the fascist government of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Finally, the thematic and stylistic influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on subsequent films has been observed in the Expressionist elements of such horror films as Frankenstein and Dracula as well as the shadowy lighting and darkly imaginative set design of films noir, the taut, psychological thrillers of the 1940s that depict a world of fear and terror populated by neurotic, often deranged characters.

Wiene's subsequent works include Genuine, a fantasy concerning an oriental princess sold in a slave market who is intent on revenging herself; Raskolnikow (Raskolnikov), an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; and INRI (Crown of Thorns), the story of Christ set within a framing story of political assassination. The best known and most acclaimed of his later films is Orlacs Hdnde (The Hands of Orlac), the tale of a concert pianist who loses his hands in a railway accident and, through surgery, is given new hands that he begins to suspect once belonged to a murderer.

Critical Reception

At the time of its opening, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari impressed most critics with its striking stylization. Rohrig, Warm, and Reimann's sets depicting twisting streets and angular buildings earned the film its reputation as the European cinema's first work of art. Wiene's direction of the two principal actors—Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari and Conrad Veidt as Cesare—is said to complement the bizarre sets and reinforce the film's aura of dread and terror. In later years, much critical attention has focused on the narrative, specifically the question of the authorship and meaning of the film's framing device, which places Francis in the garden and reveals at the end that it is he who is insane, not Caligari. As written by Mayer and Janowitz, the story ended with Caligari descending into madness. It was Lang who proposed the twist ending, arguing that without restoring a sense of moral authority at the end, audiences would find the film too disturbing. Kracauer, whose arguments parallel those made by Mayer and Janowitz at the time, has contended that the ending precludes the possibility of interpreting the story as an anti-authoritarian political allegory and abets a conservative, indeed fascist, love of authority and order. As other critics point out, however, the ending is far more ambiguous than Kracauer's argument suggests. Logic would dictate that when the madman's story ends, that is, when Francis is revealed to be insane, the set design should reflect the return to normality. However, the sets at the end are just as fantastic as those corresponding to Francis's story. Thus, the restoration of a sense of rational order is undermined and the audience is left to reconcile conflicting signs.

Principal Works

Arme Eva [with W. A. Berger] (film) 1914

Die Konservenbraut (film) 1915

Die Liebesbrief der Konigin (film) 1916

Der Mann im Spiegel (film) 1916

Die Räuberbraut (film) 1916

Das wandernde Licht (film) 1916

Ein gefährliches Spiel (film) 1919

Die drei Tdnze der Mary Wilford (film) 1920

Genuine (film) 1920

Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari] (film) 1920

Die Nacht der Kdnigin Isabeau (film) 1920

Höllische Nacht (film) 1921

Salomé (film) 1922

INRI [Crown of Thorns] (film) 1923

Raskolnikow [Raskolnikov; also released as Crime and Punishment] (film) 1923

*Orlacs Hdnde [The Hands of Orlac] (film) 1925

Die Königin von Moulin-Rouge (film) 1926

Der Rosenkavalier (film) 1926

Die berühmte Frau [The Dancer of Barcelona] (film) 1927

Die Frau auf der Folter [A Scandal in Paris] (film) 1928

Der Andere (film) 1930

Panik in Chicago (film) 1931

Polizeiakte 909 (film) 1934

†Ultimatum [with Robert Siodmak] (film) 1938

*This film was remade in the United States as Mad Love in 1935.

†Wiene died during the production of this film, which was completed by Siodmak.


Siegfried Kracauer (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: "Caligari," in From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton University Press, 1947, pp. 61-76.

[A German philosopher as well as a social and arts critic, Kracauer emigrated to the United States when the Nazis came to power. In the following excerpt, he examines the production history, themes, and techniques of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, arguing that this film best exemplifies his thesis that German popular culture provided evidence of a "mass psychological predisposition" in the German people to accept and embrace Adolf Hitler's fascism.]

[The original story of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is located in a...

(The entire section is 4692 words.)

Lotte H. Eisner (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Beginnings of the Expressionist Film," in The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, translated by Roger Greaves, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 17-38.

[Widely recognized as an eminent film critic, Eisner began her career in Germany in the mid-1920s, then fled to France in the 1930s following the rise of nazism. In the following excerpt, which is reprinted from the 1969 translation and revision of the 1952 French version of her The Haunted Screen, Eisner examines the Expressionist aspects of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.]

The leaning towards violent contrast—which in Expressionist...

(The entire section is 2231 words.)

S. S. Prawer (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Iconography of the Terror-film: Wiene's Caligari," in Caligari's Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980, pp. 164-200.

[Prawer is a German-born English critic and educator specializing in German literature, particularly the work of Heinrich Heine. In the following excerpt, taken from his book which examines the masterpieces of Gothic cinema and theorizes on the function and significance of the artistic expression of horror, he provides an extended discussion of the thematic, narrative, and stylistic innovations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and assesses its influence on subsequent films and filmmakers.]


(The entire section is 13578 words.)

Thomas Elsaesser (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Social Mobility and the Fantastic: German Silent Cinema," in Wide Angle, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1982, pp. 14-25.

[Elsaesser is an English film scholar and educator who has done extensive research on German cinema. In the following excerpt, he examines the various ways in which The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be interpreted.]

In Dr. Caligari, … the initial situation contains a social aspect involving class and status differences. Caligari, asking deferentially for a permit to put up his tent show, is treated by the town clerk and his subordinates in a brusque, humiliating and insulting manner. There can be little doubt that this scene transmits to the...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)

Nancy Ketchiff (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Dr. Caligari's Cabinet: A Cubist Perspective," in The Comparatist, Vol. VIII, May, 1984, pp. 7-13.

[In the following excerpt, Ketchif argues that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more significantly Cubist than Expressionistic and suggests that the film's manipulation of space mirrors its main themes.]

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an early example of a rejection of early cinematic tradition with its stress of illusion and narrative. The film attempts to maintain a sequential unfolding of narrative while introducing the self-conscious mode of self-reflexion. Narrative had previously demanded illusion, and the makers of Caligari were forced...

(The entire section is 2941 words.)

Mike Budd (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: Production, Reception, History," in Close Viewings: An Anthology of New Film Criticism, edited by Peter Lehman, The Florida State University Press, 1990, pp. 333-52.

[Budd is an American film scholar and educator who has written extensively on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the following excerpt, which summarizes much of his previous scholarship on the film, he places The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its historical and artistic contexts.]

Films, like other cultural products, are made and received within particular historical situations. Thus close analyses of film texts will be most revealing when they...

(The entire section is 5157 words.)

Further Reading


Budd, Michael. "Contradictions of Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Indiana Social Studies Quarterly XXXIV, No. 2 (Autumn 1981): 19-25.

Argues that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exemplifies the characteristic contradictions within German Expressionist works between nineteenth- and twentieth-century themes and aesthetic forms.

___. "Modernism and the Representation of Fantasy: Cubism and Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." In Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, pp. 15-21. New York:...

(The entire section is 419 words.)