This paper discusses The Cabinet Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and analyses how it conveys Foucault’s theory of madness. The protagonist in this film, Francis, appears in the prologue and then narrates us the story. As such, the bulk of the film is seen through his eyes, he is both a character in the tale and its narrator. However, in the epilogue we realise we have not been experiencing a memory, but a delusion. As such, the main bulk of the film, between the framing mechanism, can be seen as an exploration of Francis’s madness from inside his phenomenological experiences (Gutting, 1989, p. 57). This paper will examine how the film illustrates Foucault’s notion of madness, as found in ‘Madness and Civilisation’, through our experience of Francis, paying special attention to the four keys areas of the mise-en-scene (Foucault, 1967).

The first aspect of Foucault’s philosophy, that this film exemplifies, is his emphasis on madness as a construct of an individual. Rather than using the person as an object of medical diagnosis, Foucault believed that we must analyse madness on its own terms, by determining the ‘concrete forms it takes in the psychological life of an individual’ (Gutting, 1989, p. 56). This is what Foucault calls ‘phenomenological psychology’ (Foucault, 1987, p. 45). In the film, the mise-en-scene encourages us to experience Francis’s world from his subjective view. The set, painted by Expressionist artists, is particularly apt to show Francis’s state of mind. Foucault would claim that Francis has made a projection of himself into a world that he has constituted and which expresses his existence(Gutting, 1989, p. 61). As such we are made highly aware of the man-made features of the set. Although, as we will see, humanity is ill-fit in this world; Francis’s world made concrete through set design. The establishing shot of the film shows Holstonwall, an abstract amalgamation of pointed roofs and triangular mountains in strange perspective (Fig.1). Diagonals replace the vertical, and horizontal and acute angles replace curves, even in the everyday shapes such as doorways and windows (Powell, 2005, p. 27).

The second aspect of the mise-en-scene, the staging and direction of the actors, compounds the experience of madness. We are kept in a state of suspense throughout the film through hints that the fantasy we are experiencing with Francis is incomplete. The slow iris in and out, which is used throughout the film, isolates parts of a picture, blocking our orientation in the frame, before expanding (Fig.2). Our orientation is further effaced by the actors. Their wide-eyed gazes off scene perturb our expectations of eye-line match and point of view shots. The characters frequently occupy themselves with things we cannot see, whether through these visual distractions off-scene or, as in the asylum, by physically handling non-existent things (Powell, 2005, p. 26); we see a pianist playing without any visible keys and a demagogue addressing no one (Powell, 2005, p. 31). They each occupy their own fantasy and for us to understand their individual madness we must ‘attempt to capture the world as lived by the patient’, as Foucault urged us to do in his early work (May, 2003, p. 289). The disorientation is key to entering the psychological experience of madness with Francis, in which we experience his isolation and unease. The staging of the actors is at all times unnatural and broken, in part because of the constraining set design. The flat background throws the actors into relief, making them strange and inhuman. In some cases the deranged set has the effect of blurring the line between the man-made and the actors. The animate actors lose their humanity; they are made inorganic, whilst the inanimate gains life (Powell, 2005, p. 28). This dissolution of the difference in the mechanical and the animate is consistent with Expressionist aims, in which material objects are transformed into emotional ornaments (Kracauer, 1974, p. 69), furnishing what Foucault would call the ‘interior dimensions’ of the mad (Foucault, 1954, p. 69). In Francis’s room, for example, the rounded padded chaise lounge represents his relative comfort, whilst the high back chair dominating Alan’s room indicates Francis’s apprehension at this part in the story (Fig.3).

The lighting throughout this film also adds to our experience of Francis’s phenomenology. ‘Light’ is painted directly onto the set and often in discord to the actual lighting, which serves to efface our rules of perception (Kracauer, 1974, p. 69). The low key lighting is harsh and unforgiving, creating high contrast, and is entirely produced by on set lights which allowed more control of the effects. Tints are used to indicate the time of day or draw attention to Francis’s emotional response to certain points in the narrative. For example Jane’s lounge is tinted with purple, representing Francis’s romantic feelings for her, whilst blue and yellow tints indicate night and daylight (Fig.4). Alan’s murder is depicted entirely through the interplay of Cesare and Alan’s shadows, allowing this psychologically damaging event to be communicated through Francis’s psyche. Francis cannot recreate this event in stark light, and so instead confines it to the shadows, and this is how we see it. Perhaps for the same reason, the murdered bodies are represented by lit bundles of white sheet, often tumbling off the bed. The inanimate dead bodies, so conveyed, bear striking similarity to Jane asleep on her bed, all white sheets, lit brightly and still. This indicates Francis’s inability to conceive of Jane in a fulsome way, reducing her to a stock character, a maiden-in-distress, a body.

The costume of the characters signifies how Francis is conceiving other people in his mind. What is most striking about Francis’s costume is its ordinary nature, particularly in contrast to Caligari’s stylised hair and absurd cloak, or Cesare’s skin tight leotard (Coates, 1991, p. 36). This serves to highlight his different-ness from Caligari and Cesare, whose costumes make the actors inhuman. The still of Dr. Caligari in the town hall looks like a painting, made absurd with the high seat for the clerk and the black lines on Caligari’s gloves and hair (Fig.5). His eyebrows are painted flat to his face and when he moves he becomes a mess of abstract forms. Contra to Cesare’s skin-tight leotard, which shows he has no autonomy from his costume, no individuality to express through clothing. The close-up of Cesare also looks like a painting (Fig.6), with heavy eyeliner, horizontal mouth and brows, a straight hair line and striped polo-neck (Powell, 2005, p. 28). Francis is not stylised in his costume or make up. His hair is naturalised and his make-up is discreet and minimal, serving only to outline his features against the strong lighting on set. Foucault may suggest this is because Francis sees himself as alien to this world, one of murder and insanity. The schematized clothing of Caligari and Cesare create simple personas – ‘bad guys’. Francis’s self-perception is normal in relation to them, he is the hero, and perceives himself as so dressed.

The mise-en-scene is not merely an exploration of phenomenological psychology. It also displays the nuanced nature of this psychology. Foucault suggests that the psychological world of the mad is not isolated from their experience of reality ‘but occurring all the time’ (Gutting, 1989, p. 61). To think of the mad as removed from common experiences, is to classify them as something non-human. The recurrence of the asylum in the epilogue demonstrates how closely related the psychological world of the mad is to their ordinary experiences. The set design is identical with the same sunburst on the floor, serving as the placement for Francis in and outside the fantasy. The asylum, we discover, is Francis’s usual environment so it is unsurprising that is portrayed exactly in his fantasy, as the setting of Caligari’s descent into madness and Francis’s final heroic act. When Dr. Caligari is confronted with the dead Cesare he explodes in a manic rage and is wrestled into a strait-jacket. This desperate frenzy mimics exactly the movements Francis makes in the same circumstance in the epilogue. This mirrored staging demonstrates Foucault’s point that the important experiences of the mad will appear in their constructed world. At its core phenomenological psychology is a description of actual experience, made up of both the imagined and the shared (Foucault, 1970, p. 326).

Another way in which this closeness is portrayed is by the recurrence of characters who have provided the model for Francis’s fantasy, but who are essentially different in the epilogue. Although the set remains the same, the characters act differently towards Francis. His enemy, Cesare, is the picture of innocence, cradling a flower, and we note out of his leotard (Fig.7). Jane, his fantasy lover, is aloof and icy, passively staring off screen. Caligari is now the one in power and Francis is the mad one. The film therefore exemplifies Foucault’s notions of the phenomenology of the mad, as, essentially, constructed with reference to their genuine lived experiences.

The third key element of Foucault’s philosophy exemplified by this film is our modern consciousness of madness. Foucault outlines the shifts in our conceptions of the mad through time, and each era is represented in this film. The character of Cesare illustrates the Classical era of the mad as inhuman, irresponsible and therefore confined both physically and ontologically. Dr. Caligari can be seen as exemplifying the Renaissance era perception of madness as a form of entertainment, holding some magical or mystical knowledge. The interplay between Dr. Caligari/The Director and Francis reveals our modern conception of madness, and this is what I focus on below.

During the fantasy Dr. Caligari is communicated to us as he appears to Francis – a terrifying example of authority deranged with power (Kracauer, 1974, p. 65). Indeed fear is ‘an essential presence in the asylum’ (Foucault, 1967, p. 245). A key visual indicator of this relationship is when Francis is forced into a straitjacket. For Foucault the straitjacket is the perfect manifestation of our modern madness; constrained and controlled through a scientific, objective and supposedly humane mode of consciousness. The deep seated nature of this notion of madness is obvious within the film, permeating into Francis’s fantasy. At one point we see Francis’s notion of what it is to be a prisoner – disempowered by severe downward vertical lines and trapped by the patch of ‘light’ on the floor (Powell, 2005, p. 30) (Fig 8). Foucault criticised modern psychiatry for inspiring moral shame and fear as a ‘treatment’ for the mad and the basis of the doctor-patient relationship (Foucault, 1967, p. 247). This is echoed when the Director announces that he can ‘cure’ Francis, a distinctly modern notion. Contemporary psychiatry conceives madness as mental illness, by definition, curable. The asylum is converted into a medical space, justified by a scientific objectivity. The modern psychiatric doctor is seen by his patients as a thaumaturge, possessing a miraculous cure (Foucault, 1967, p. 273). This relationship infuses Francis’s psyche. Dr. Caligari is able to perform a magical act of communication with Cesare; but in doing so the doctor turns his patient into an object, as seen through the way Dr Caligari sits Cesare up and how, in the epilogue, Francis is similarly handled, manually made to sit before the Director, stiff with terror (Fig.9). ‘This new relation between insanity and medical thought …ultimately command[s] the whole modern experience of madness’ (Foucault, 1967, p. 269)

This paper has explored three key elements of Foucault’s vast philosophy of madness. The film’s mise-en-scene effectively communicates what Foucault would call the phenomenological experience of Francis’s madness. Through analysis of particular parts of the film we can illustrate the nuanced relationship the world of the mad has with their actual experiences. The final part of Foucault’s philosophy discussed here, was the way in which this film portrays our modern conception of madness as exemplified by the relationship between Francis and the Director/Dr. Caligari. When watching this film, I felt I was the character of the man to whom Francis tells his story. During the epilogue we discover Francis is mad, we withdraw from him, much like the unnamed man. But even at the last we don’t trust the Director, especially when he dons his spectacles and for a moment looks like Dr Caligari. However, if we are the man at the beginning, to whom Francis tells his story, a character who is clearly mad as well, we have to ask ourselves – are we all mad here?

Claire Travers


  • Coates, P. 1991. Gorgon’s Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism and the Image of Horror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. 1919. [Film] Directed by Robert Wiene. Germany: Eureka Videos [DVD]
  • Foucault, M. 1954. Malade Mentale et Personalitie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Foucault, M. 1967. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
  • Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things. New York: Random House.
  • Foucault, M. 1987. Mental Illness and Psychology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gutting, G. 1989. Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Scientific Reason. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Kracauer, S. 1974. Caligari. In: From Caligari to Hitler : a Psychological History of the German Film. Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 61-76.
  • May, T. 2003. Foucualt’s Relation to Phenomenology . In: G. Gutting, ed. The Cambirdge Companion to Foucault (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press, pp. 284-311.
  • Powell, A. 2005. Deluze and Horror Film. Edinburugh: Edinburugh University Press.

Further Reading

  • Foucault, M, Biswanger, L, ed. Hoeller, K. 1986. Dream and Existence. Seattle :The Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry.
  • Toombs, S. 1987. ‘The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Approach to the Patient-Physician Relationship’ in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 12. pp. 219-24


Figure 1. The establishing shot of the film and the background to the fair is an Expressionist drawing of Holstonwall. The pointed roofs bow inward and blend with one another and the trees. The shot is immediately disconcerting as the triangle focuses the audiences eye but with no apparent meaningful focal point. It also gives us a juxtaposition from the natural three-dimensional set of the prologue.

Figure 2. The iris is used to focus the audiences attention on certain parts of the frame, and serve to disorientate us. In the left image the round iris mimics an eye shutting or opening, and the last or first thing we see is Caligari. In the left image the diamond iris frames Cesare outside the window, expanding to show him at the back of Jane’s bedroom. The angular iris puts the audience on edge.

Figure 3. Tints are used to communicate subliminal emotions, in this case purple is used exclusively for Jane’s lounge, which is also the only set entirely without a straight line. The round orb lights the room, throwing circular patterns of light on the floor and up the walls. The white cloth and round table gives the room a cosy and welcoming feel. Francis feels most safe here.

Figure 4. In the left image the round padded chaise lounge represents Francis’s comfort in his room. Once Francis leaves this room for the last time his obsession with Dr. Caligari does not allow him to return. In the same position in the right image the straight backed chair dominates the frame. Alan’s room is overshadowed by it; perhaps a symbol of Alan’s impending death.

Figure 5. Dr. Caligari looks like a painting, with stylised black and white streaks in his hair and on his gloves.

Figure 6. The still of the close up of Cesare is reminiscent of Man Ray’s ‘Marquise Casati (1922)

Figure 7. Cesare is seen in the epilogue as the picture of innocence. His blunt fringe and austere make up is gone, and he is wearing trousers and a black top. He cradles a flower, peaceful and a still sad. The flowers remind the audience of our last experience of him, dead under the funeral pall.

Figure 8. The prisoner is surrounded with blunt shapes; even the ‘ball and chain’ is angular. Weighty downward columns make the prisoner look oppressed and the patch of light painted on the floor seems to contain him.

Figure 9. In the left figure Dr. Caligari dotes on the sleeping Cesare, with almost parental gestures. In the right image the Director approaches Francis with the same air of natural paternalistic authority. In both cases Cesare and Francis are manually manipulated for the whim of the Dr.


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