The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, both of whom were pacifists by the time they met following World War I. Janowitz served as an officer during the war, but the experience left him embittered with the military, which affected his writing. Meyer feigned madness to avoid military service during the war, which led him to intense examinations from a military psychiatrist. The experience left him distrustful of authority, and the psychiatrist served as a model for the Dr. Caligari character. Janowitz and Mayer were introduced in June 1918 by a mutual friend, actor Ernst Deutsch. Both writers were penniless at the time. Gilda Langer, an actress with whom Mayer was in love, encouraged Janowitz and Mayer to write a film together. She later became the basis for the Jane character. Langer also encouraged Janowitz to visit a fortune teller, who predicted that Janowitz would survive his military service during the war, but Langer would die. This prediction proved true, as Langer died unexpectedly in 1920, and Janowitz said it inspired the scene in which Cesare predicts Alan's death at the fair.
Although neither had any associations the film industry, Janowitz and Mayer wrote a script over six weeks during the winter of 1918–19. In describing their roles, Janowitz called himself "the father who planted the seed, and Mayer the mother who conceived and ripened it". The Expressionist filmmaker Paul Wegener was among their influences. The story was partially inspired by a circus sideshow the two visited on Kantstrasse in Berlin, called "Man or Machine?", in which a man performed feats of great strength after becoming hypnotized. They first visualized the story of Caligari the night of that show. Several of Janowitz's past experiences influenced his writing, including memories of his hometown of Prague, and, as he put it, a mistrust of "the authoritative power of an inhuman state gone mad" due to his military service. Janowitz also believed he had witnessed a murder in 1913 near an amusement park on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, beside the Holstenwall, which served as another inspiration for the script. According to Janowitz, he observed a woman disappear into some bushes, from which a respectable-looking man emerged a few moments later, and the next day Janowitz learned the girl was murdered. Holstenwall later became the name of the town setting in Caligari.
Janowitz and Mayer are said to have set out to write a story denouncing arbitrary authority as brutal and insane. Janowitz said it was only years after the film was released that he realized exposing the "authoritative power of an inhuman state" was the "subconscious intention" of the writers. However, Hermann Warm, who designed the film's sets, said Mayer had no political intentions when he wrote the film. Film historian David Robinson noted Janowitz did not refer to anti-authority intentions in the script until many decades after Caligari was released, and he suggested Janowitz's recollection may have changed in response to later interpretations to the film. The film they wrote was entitled Das Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, using the English spelling "Cabinet" rather than the German "Kabinett". The completed script contained 141 scenes. Janowitz has claimed the name "Caligari", which was not settled upon until after the script was finished, was inspired by a rare book called ‘’Unknown Letters of Stendhal'’, which featured a letter from the French novelist Stendhal referring to a French officer named Caligari he met at the La Scala theater in Milan. However, no record of any such letter exists, and film historian John D. Barlow suggested Janowitz may have fabricated the story. The physical appearance of Dr. Caligari was inspired by portraits of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The character's name is spelled "Calligaris" in the only known surviving script, although in some instances the final "s" is removed. Other character names are also spelled differently from the final film: Cesare appears as "Caesare", Alan is "Allan" or sometimes "Alland" and Dr. Olfen is "Dr. Olfens". Likewise, unnamed characters in the final film have names in the script, including the town clerk ("Dr. Lüders") and the house-breaker ("Jakob Straat").
The story of Caligari is told abstractly, like a fairy tale, and includes little description about or attention toward the psychological motivations of the characters, which is more heavily emphasized in the film's visual style. The original script shows few traces of Expressionist influence that are prevalent in the film's sets and costumes. Through film director Fritz Lang, Janowitz and Mayer met with Erich Pommer, head of production at the Decla-Bioscop film studio, on 19 April 1919, to discuss selling the script. According to Pommer, he attempted to get rid of them, but they persisted until he agreed to meet with them. Pommer reportedly asked the writers to leave the script with him, but they refused, and instead Mayer read it aloud to him. Pommer and his assistant, Julius Sternheim, were so impressed that he refused to let them leave until a contract was signed, and he purchased the script from them that night. The writers had originally sought no fewer than 10,000 marks, but were given 3,500, with the promise of another 2,000 once the film went into production and 500 if it was sold for foreign release, which the producers considered unlikely. The contract, today preserved at Berlin's Bundesfilmarchiv, gave Pommer the right to make any changes to the script deemed appropriate. Pommer said he was drawn to the script because he believed it could be filmed inexpensively, and it bore similarities to films inspired by the macabre horror shows of the Grand Guignol theater in Paris, which were popular at the time. Pommer later said: "They saw in the script an 'experiment'. I saw a relatively cheap film".
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari makes use of a "Rahmenerzählung", or frame story. Both a prologue and epilogue establish the main body of the film as a flashback, an innovative technique at the time. Lang has said that, during early discussions about his possible involvement with the film, he suggested the addition opening scene with a "normal" style, which would lead the public into the rest of the film without confusion. However, it remains unclear whether Lang suggested the frame story structure itself, or simply gave advice on how to write a frame story that was already agreed upon, and some writers, like David Robinson, have questioned whether Lang's recollection is correct. Director Robert Wiene was supportive of the changes. Janowitz has claimed he and Mayer were not privy to discussions about adding the frame story and strongly opposed its inclusion, believing it had deprived the film of its revolutionary and political significance; he wrote that it was "an illicit violation, a raping of our work" that turned the film "into a cliché ... in which the symbolism was to be lost". Janowitz claims the writers sought legal action to stop the change, but were unsuccessful. He also claims they did not see the finished film with the frame story until a preview was shown to studio heads, after which the writers "expressed our dissatisfaction in a storm of thunderous remonstrances". They had to be persuaded not to publicly protest the film.
In his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer argued, based largely on an unpublished typescript written and provided by Janowitz, that the film originally included no frame story at all and only the main story, starting with the fair coming to town and ending with Dr. Caligari becoming institutionalized. Kracauer argued the frame story glorified authority and was added to turn a "revolutionary" film into a "conformistic" one. (See the Themes section for more.) No surviving copies of the script were believed to exist to confirm this fact, until the early 1950s when actor Werner Krauss revealed he still had his copy. Krauss refused to part with it, and it was not until 1978, after his death, that it was purchased by the German film archive Deutsche Kinemathek. It remained unavailable for public consumption until 1995, when a full transcript was published.
The script revealed that a frame story indeed was part of the original Caligari screenplay, albeit a significantly different one than that in the final film. The original manuscript opens on an elegant terrace of a large villa, where Francis and Jane are hosting a party, and the guests insist that Francis tell them a story that happened to him 20 years earlier. The conclusion to the frame story is missing from the script. Critics widely agree that the discovery of the screenplay strongly undermines Kracauer's theory, with some, like German film historian Stephen Brockmann, even arguing it disproves his claims altogether. Others, however, like John D. Barlow, argues it does not completely settle the issue, as the original screenplay's frame story simply serves to introduce the main plot, rather than subvert it as the final film's version does.
Many details about the making of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are in dispute and will probably remain unsettled due to the large number of people involved in the making of the film, many of whom have recalled it differently or dramatized their own contributions to its production. Production of the film was delayed about four or five months after the script was purchased. Pommer originally chose Lang as the director of Caligari, and Lang even went so far as to hold preparatory discussions about the script with Janowitz, but he became unavailable due to his involvement with the filming of The Spiders, so Wiene was selected instead. According to Janowitz, Wiene's father, a successful theater actor, had "gone slightly mad when he could no longer appear on the stage", and Janowitz believed that experience helped Wiene bring an "intimate understanding" to the source material of Caligari.
Decla producer Rudolf Meinert introduced Hermann Warm to Wiene and provided Warm the Caligari script, asking him to come up with proposals for the design. Warm believed "films must be drawings brought to life", and felt a naturalistic set was wrong for the subject of the film, instead recommending a fantastic, graphic style, in which the images would be visionary, nightmarish and out of the ordinary. Warm brought to the project his two friends, painters and stage designers Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig, both of whom were associated with the Berlin art and literary magazine Der Sturm. The trio spent a full day and part of the night reading the script, after which Reimann suggested an Expressionist style, a style often used in his own paintings. They also conceived the idea of painting forms and shadows directly onto the sets to ensure a dark and unreal look. (See Visual Style for more.) According to Warm, the three approached Wiene with the idea and he immediately agreed, although Wiene has made claims that he conceived the film's Expressionist style. Meinert agreed to the idea after one day's consideration, telling Warm, Reimann and Röhrig to make the sets as "crazy" and "eccentrically" as possible. He embraced the idea for commercial, not aesthetic reasons: Expressionism was fashionable at the time, so he concluded even if film received bad reviews, the artistic style would garner attention and make it profitable.
Wiene filmed a test scene to demonstrate Warm, Reimann, and Röhrig's theories, and it so impressed the producers that the artists were given free rein. Pommer later said he was responsible for placing Warm, Reimann and Röhrig in charge of the sets. But Warm has claimed that, although Pommer was in charge of production at Decla when Caligari was made, he was not actually a producer on the film itself. Instead, he says Meinert was the film's true producer, and that it was he who gave Warm the manuscript. Warm claimed Meinert produced the film "despite the opposition of a part of the management of Decla." Meinert said Pommer had "not sanctioned" the film's abstract visual style. Nevertheless, Pommer claimed to have supervised Caligari, and that the film's Expressionistic style was chosen in part to differentiate it from competing Hollywood films. The predominant attitude at the time was that artistic achievement led to success in exports to foreign film markets. The dominance of Hollywood at the time, coupled with a period of inflation and currency devaluation, forced German film studios to seek projects that could be made inexpensively, with a combination of realistic and artistic elements so the films would be accessible to American audiences, yet also distinctive from Hollywood films. Pommer has claimed while Mayer and Janowitz expressed a desire for artistic experimentation in the film, his decision to use painted canvases as scenery was primarily a commercial one, as they would be a significant financial saving over building sets.
Janowitz claims he attempted to commission the sets from designer and engraver Alfred Kubin, known for his heavy use of light and shadow to create a sense of chaos, but Kubin declined to participate in the project because he was too busy. In a conflicting story, however, Janowitz claimed he requested from Decla "Kubin paintings", and that they misread his instructions as "cubist painters" and hired Reimann and Röhrig as a result. David Robinson argues this story was probably an embellishment stemming from Janowitz's disdain for the two artists. Janowitz has claimed that he and Mayer conceived the idea of painting the sets on canvas, and that the shooting script included written directions that the scenery be designed in Kubin's style. However, the later rediscovery of the original screenplay refutes this claim, as it includes no such directions about the sets. This was also disputed in a 1926 article by Barnet Braverman in Billboard magazine, which claimed the script included no mention of an unconventional visual style, and that Janowitz and Mayer in fact strongly opposed the stylization. She claims Mayer later came to appreciate the visual style, but that Janowitz remained opposed to it years after the film's release.
The set design, costumes and props took about two weeks to prepare. Warm worked primarily on the sets, while Röhrig handled the painting and Reimann was responsible for the costumes. Robinson noted the costumes in Caligari seem to resemble a wide variety of time periods. For example, Dr. Caligari and the fairground workers' costumes resemble the Biedermeier era, while Jane's embody Romanticism. Additionally, Robinson wrote, Cesare's costume and those of policemen in the film appear abstract, while many of the other characters seem like ordinary German clothes from the 1920s. The collaborative nature of the film's production highlights the importance that both screenwriters and set designers held in German cinema of the 1920s, although film critic Lotte H. Eisner said sets held more importance than anything else in German films at that time. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the first German Expressionist film, although Brockmann and film critic Mike Budd claims it was also influenced by German Romanticism; Budd notes the film's themes of insanity and the outcry against authority are common among German Romanticism in literature, theater and the visual arts. Film scholar Vincent LoBrutto said the theater of Max Reinhardt and the artistic style of Die Brücke were additional influences on Caligari.
Janowitz originally intended the part of Cesare to go to his friend, actor Ernst Deutsch. Mayer wrote the part of Jane for Gilda Langer, but she died before she could take the role. Janowitz claimed he wrote the part of Dr. Caligari specifically for Werner Krauss, who Deutsch had brought to his attention during rehearsals for a Max Reinhardt play; Janowitz said only Krauss or Paul Wegener could have played the part. The parts of Dr. Caligari and Cesare ultimately went to Krauss and Conrad Veidt, respectively, who enthusiastically took part in many aspects of the production. Krauss suggested changes to his own make-up and costumes, including the elements of a top hat, cape, and walking stick with an ivory handle for his character. The actors in Caligari were conscious of the need to adapt their make-up, costumes style and appearance to match the visual style of the film. Much of the acting in German silent films at the time was already Expressionistic, mimicking the pantomimic aspects of Expressionist theater. The performances of Krauss and Veidt in Caligari was typical of this style, as they both had experience in Expressionist-influenced theater, and as a result John D. Barlow said they appear more comfortable in their surroundings in the film than the other actors. Prior to filming, Kraus and Veidt appeared on stage in the winter of 1918 in an Expressionist drama, Reinhold Goering's Seeschlacht, at the Deutsches Theater. By contrast, Dagover had little experience in Expressionist theater, and Barlow argues her acting is less harmonious with the film's visual style.
Wiene asked the actors to make movements similar to dance, most prominently from Veidt, but also from Krauss, Dagover and Friedrich Feger, who played Francis. Krauss and Veidt are the only actors whose performances fully match the stylization of the sets, which they achieved by concentrating their movements and facial expressions. Barlow notes that "Veidt moves along the wall as if it had 'exuded' him ... more a part of a material world of objects than a human one", and Krauss "moves with angular viciousness, his gestures seem broken or cracked by the obsessive force within him, a force that seems to emerge from a constant toxic state, a twisted authoritarianism of no human scruple and total insensibility". Most of the other actors besides Krauss and Veidt have a more naturalistic style. Alan, Jane and Francis play the roles of an idyllically happy trio enjoying youth; Alan in particular represents the archetype of a sensitive 19th century student. Mike Budd points out realist characters in stylized settings are a common characteristic in Expressionist theater. However, David Robinson notes even the performances of the more naturalistic supporting roles in Caligari have Expressionist elements, like Hans-Heinz von Twardowski's "strange, tormented face" as Alan. He also cites Feher's "large angular movements," especially in the scene where he searches the deserted fairground. Other minor roles are Expressionistic in nature, like two policemen who sit facing each other at their desks and move with exaggerated symmetry, and two servants who awaken and rise from their beds in perfect synchronization. Vincent LoBrutto said of the acting in the film:
|“||The acting style is as emotionally over-the-top as the narrative and visual style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The behavior of the characters represent the actors' emotional responses to the expressionistic environment and the situations in which they find themselves. Staging and movement of the actors responds to the hysteria of Caligari's machinations and to the fun-house labyrinth that appears to be the reflection of a crazy mirror, not an orderly village.||”|
Shooting for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began at the end of December 1919 and concluded at the end of January 1920. It was shot entirely in a studio without any exterior shots, which was unusual for films of the time, but dictated by the decision to give the film a stylized Expressionist visual style. The extent to which Mayer and Janowitz participated during filming is disputed: Janowitz claims the duo repeatedly refused to allow any script changes during production, and Pommer claimed Mayer was on the set for every day of filming. But Hermann Warm claimed they were never present for any of the shooting or involved in any discussions during production.
Caligari was filmed in the Lexie-Atelier film studio at Weissensee. It was the fourth film to be made there, followed by Die Pest in Florenz (1919) and the two parts of Fritz Lang's The Spiders. The studio was built in 1913 for use with the Vitascope GmbH, and as a result was restrictive in scale; most of the sets used in the film do not exceed six meters in width and depth. However, an understage space was provided for use as a foreground set. Certain elements from the original script had to be cut from the film due to the limited space, including a procession of gypsies, a handcart pushed by Dr. Caligari, Jane's carriage, and a chase scene involving horse-cabs. Likewise, the script called for a fairground scene with roundabouts, barrel organs, sideshow barkers, performers and menageries, none of which could be achieved in the restrictive space. Instead, the scenes use a painting of the Holstenwall town as a background; throngs of people walk around two spinning merry-go-round props, which creates the impression of a carnival. The script also made references to modern elements like telephones, telegrams and electric light, but they were eliminated during the filming, leaving the final film's setting with no indication of a specific time period.
Several scenes from the script were cut during filming, most of which were brief time lapses or transitioning scenes, or title screens deemed unnecessary. One of the more substantial scenes to be cut involved the ghost of Alan at a cemetery. The scene with the town clerk berating Dr. Caligari deviated notably from the original script, which simply called for the clerk to be "impatient". He is far more abusive in the scene as it was filmed, and is perched atop an exaggeratingly-high bench that towers over Dr. Caligari. Another deviation from the script comes when Dr. Caligari first awakens Cesare, one of the most famous moments in the film. The script called for Cesare to gasp and struggle for air, then shake violently and collapse in Dr. Caligari's arms. As it was filmed, there are no such physical struggling, and instead the camera zooms in on Cesare's face as he gradually opens his eyes. The original title cards for Caligari featured stylized, misshapen lettering with excessive underlinings, exclamation points and occasionally archaic spellings. The bizarre style, which matches that of the film as a whole, mimics the lettering of Expressionistic posters at the time. The original title cards were tinted in green, steely-blue and brown. Many modern prints of the film do not preserve the original lettering.
Photography was provided by Willy Hameister, who went on to work with Wiene on several other films. The camera does not play a large part in Caligari, and is used primarily to show the sets. The cinematography tends to alternate only between medium shots at straight-on angles and abrupt close-ups to create a sense of shock, but with few long shots or panning movement. Likewise, there is very little interscene editing. Most scenes follow the other without intercutting, which gives Caligari a more theatrical feel than a cinematic one. Heavy lighting is typically absent from the film, heightening the sense of darkness prevalent in the story. However, lighting is occasionally used to intensify the uneasiness created by the distortions of the sets. For example, when Cesare first awakens at the fair, a light is shone directly on a close-up of his heavily made-up face to create an unsettling glow. Additionally, lighting is used in a then-innovative way to cast a shadow against the wall during the scene in which Cesare kills Alan, so the viewer sees only the shadow and not the figures themselves. Lighting techniques like this became frequently used in later German films.