Authority and conformity
Caligari, like a number of Weimar films that followed it, thematizes brutal and irrational authority by making a violent and possible insane authority figure its antagonist. Kracauer said Dr. Caligari was symbolic of the German war government and fatal tendencies inherent in the German system, saying the character "stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values". Likewise, John D. Barlow described Dr. Caligari as an example of the tyrannical power and authority that had long plagued Germany, while Cesare represents the "common man of unconditional obedience". Janowitz has claimed Cesare represents the common citizen who is conditioned to kill or be killed, just as soldiers are trained during their military service, and that Dr. Caligari is symbolic of the German government sending those soldiers off to die in the war. The control Dr. Caligari yields over the minds and actions of others results in chaos and both moral and social perversion. Cesare lacks any individuality and is simply a tool of his master; Barlow writes that he is so dependent on Caligari that he falls dead when he strays too far from the source of his sustenance, "like a machine that has run out of fuel".
In his influential book From Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer argues the Dr. Caligari character is symptomatic of a subconscious need in German society for a tyrant, which he calls the German "collective soul". Kracauer argues Dr. Caligari and Cesare are premonitions of Adolf Hitler and his rule over Germany, and that his control over the weak-willed, puppet-like somnabolist prefigure aspects of the mentality that allowed the Nazi Party to rise. He calls Dr. Caligari's use of hypnotism to impose his will foreshadowing of Hitler's "manipulation of the soul". Kracauer described the film as an example of Germany's obedience to authority and failure or unwillingness to rebel against deranged authority, and reflects a "general retreat" into a shell that occurred in post-war Germany. Cesare symbolizes those who have no mind of their own and must follow the paths of others; Kracauer wrote he foreshadows a German future in which "self-appointed Caligaris hypnotized innumerable Cesares into murder". Barlow rejects Kracauer's claims that the film glorifies authority "just because it has not made a preachy statement against it", and said the connection between Dr. Caligari and Hitler lies in the mood the film conveys, not an endorsement of such tyrant on the film's part.
Everyday reality in Caligari is dominated by tyrannical aspects. Authorities sit atop high perches above the people they deal with and hold offices out of sight at the end of long, forbidding stairways. Most of the film's characters are caricatures who fit neatly into prescribed social roles, such as the outraged citizens chasing a public enemy, the authoritarian police who are deferential to their superiors, the oft-harassed bureaucratic town clerk, and the asylum attendants who act like stereotypical "little men in white suits". Only Dr. Caligari and Cesare are atypical of social roles, instead serving as, in Barlow's words, "abstractions of social fears, the incarnations of demonic forces of a nightmarish world the bourgeoisie was afraid to acknowledge, where self-assertion is pushed to willful and arbitrary power over others". Kracauer wrote the film demonstrates a contrast between the rigid control, represented by such characters as Dr. Caligari and the town clerk, and chaos, represented by the crowds of people at the fair and the seemingly never-ending spinning of the merry-go-rounds. He said the film leaves no room for middle ground between these two extremes, and that viewers are forced to embrace either insanity or authoritarian rigidity, leaving little space for human freedom. Kracauer writes: "Caligari exposes the soul wavering between tyranny and chaos, and facing a desperate situation: any escape from tyranny seems to throw it into a state of utter confusion".
Dr. Caligari is not the only symbol of arrogant authority in the film. In fact, he is a victim of harsh authority himself during the scene with the dismissive town clerk, who brushes him off and ignores him to focus on his paperwork. Film historian Thomas Elsaesser argues that Dr. Caligari's murderous rampage through Cesare can be seen as a rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak in response to such experiences as these, even in spite of his own authoritarianism. The Expressionistic set design in this scene further amplifies the power of the official and the weakness of his supplicant; the clerk towers in an excessively high chair over the small and humiliated Dr. Caligari. The scene represents class and status differences, and conveys the psychological experience of being simultaneously outraged and powerless in the face of a petty bureaucracy. Another common visual motif is the use of stairways to illustrate the hierarchy of authority figures, such as the multiple stairs leading up to police headquarters, and three staircases ascending to Dr. Caligari in the asylum.
Francis expresses a resentment of all forms of authority, particularly during the end of the frame story, when he feels he has been institutionalized because of the madness of the authorities, not because there is anything wrong with him. Francis can be seen, at least within the main narrative, as a symbol of reason and enlightenment triumphing over the irrational tyrant and unmasking the absurdity of social authority. But Kracauer contended the frame story undermines that premise. He argues if not for the frame story, the tale of Francis's efforts against Dr. Caligari would have been a praiseworthy example of independence and rebellion against authority. However, with the addition of the frame story, which places the veracity of Francis's claims into question, Kracauer argues the film glorifies authority and turns a reactionary story into an authoritarian film: "The result of these modifications was to falsify the action and to ultimately reduce it to the ravings of a madman." Kracauer believed these changes were not necessarily intentional, but rather an "instinctive submission to the necessities of the screen" because commercial films had to "answer to mass desires". Fritz Lang disagreed with Kracaucer's argument, and instead believes the frame story makes the film's revolutionary inclinations more convincing, not less. David Robinson said, as time passed, filmgoers have been less inclined to interpret the film as a vindication of authority because modern audiences have grown more skeptical of authority in general, and are more inclined to believe Francis's story and interpret the asylum director as wrongly committing Francis to silence him.
Point of view and perception of reality
Another major theme of Caligari is, as Stephen Brockmann writes, "the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity, and hence the destabilization of the very notion of sanity itself". By the end of the film, viewers realize the story they have been watching has been told from the perspective of an insane narrator, and therefore they cannot accept anything they have seen as reliable truth. The film's unusual visual abstractions and other stylized elements serve to show the world as one experienced by a madman. Similarly, the film has been described as portraying the story as a nightmare and the frame story the real world. John D. Barlow said the film exemplifies a common Expressionist theme that "the ultimate perception of reality will appear distorted and insane to the healthy and practical mind". The film serves as a reminder than any story told through a flashback subjectivizes the story from the perspective of the narrator. At the end of the film, the asylum director gives no indication that he means Francis ill will, and in fact he seems to truly care for his patients. But Francis nevertheless believes he is being persecuted, so in the story as told from his perspective, Dr. Caligari takes on the role of persecutor.
However, the Expressionistic visual elements of the film are present not only in the main narrative, but also in the epilogue and prologue scenes of frame story, which are supposed to be an objective account of reality. For example, the frame story scenes still have tress with tentacle-like branches and a high, foreboding wall in the background. Strange leaf and line patterns are seen on the bench Francis sits upon, flame-like geometric designs can be seen on the walls, and his asylum cell has the same distorted shape as in the main narrative. If the primary story were strictly the delusions of a madman, the frame story would be completely devoid of those elements, but the fact they are present makes it unclear whether that perspective can be taken as reliable either. Instead, the film offers no true normal world to oppose to that of the twisted and nightmarish world as described by Francis. As a result, after the film's closing scene, it can be seen as ambiguous whether Francis or the asylum director are truly the insane one, or whether both are insane. Likewise, the final shot of the film, with an iris that fades to a close-up on the asylum director's face, further creates doubt over whether the character is actually sane and trustworthy. As Brockmann writes, "In the end, the film is not just about one unfortunate madman; it is about an entire world that is possibly out of balance". Mike Budd notes that, during the scene in which asylum doctors restrain Francis, his movement closely mimics those when Dr. Caligari is restrained in a similar scene during the main story. Budd says this suggests a "dream logic of repetition" which throws further confusion on which perspective is reality.
Duality is another common theme in Caligari. Dr. Caligari is portrayed in the main narrative as an insane tyrant, and in the frame story as a respected authority and director of a mental institution. As a result of this duality, the viewer cannot help but suspect a malevolent aspect of him at the conclusion of the film, even despite all evidence indicating he is a kind and caring man. Even within the main narrative alone, Dr. Caligari lives a double life: holding a respectable position as the asylum director, but becoming a hypnotist and murderer at night. Additionally, the character is actual a double of the "real" Caligari, an 18th-century mystic that the film character becomes so obsessed with that he desires to penetrate his innermost secrets and "become Caligari". Francis also takes on a double life of sorts, serving as the heroic protagonist in the main narrative and a patient in a mental institution in the frame story. Anton Kaes described the story Francis tells as an act of transference with his psychiatrist, as well as a projection of his feelings that he is a victim under the spell of the all-powerful asylum director, just as Cesare is the hypnotized victim of Dr. Caligari. The Cesare character serves as both a persecutor and a victim, as he is both a murderer and the unwilling slave of an oppressive master.
Siegfried Kracauer said by coupling a fantasy in which Francis overthrows a tyrannical authority, with a reality in which authority triumphs over Francis, Caligari reflects a double aspect of German life, suggesting they reconsider their traditional belief in authority even as they embrace it. A contrast between levels of reality exist not only in the characterizations, but in the presentation of some of the scenes as well. This, as Barlow writes, "reveals a contrast between external calm and internal chaos". For example, flashback scenes when Francis reads Dr. Caligari's diary, in which the doctor is shown growing obsessed with learning hypnotic powers, take place as Dr. Caligari is sleeping peacefully in the present. Another example is the fair, which on the surface appears to represent fun and escapism, but reveals a lurking sense of chaos and disaster in the form of Dr. Caligari and Cesare. The visual elements of the film also convey a sense of duality, particularly in the contrasts between black and white. This is particularly prevalent in the sets, where black shadows are set against white walls, but also in other elements like the costumes and make-up. For instance, Dr. Caligari wears mostly black, but white streaks are present in his hair and on his gloves. Cesare's face is a ghostly white, but the darks of his eyes are heavily outlined in black. Likewise, Jane's white face contrasts with her deep, dark eyes.
Reflection on post-war Germany
Critics have suggested Caligari highlights some of the neuroses prevalent in the Germany and the Weimar Republic when the film was made, particularly in the shadow of World War I, at a time when extremism was rampant, reactionaries still controlled German institutions, and citizens feared the negative impact the Treaty of Versailles would have on the economy. Siegfried Kracauer wrote that the paranoia and fear portrayed in the film was a sign of things to come in Germany, and that the film reflected a German tendency to "retreat into themselves" and away from political engagement following the war. Vincent LoBrutto wrote that the film can be seen as a social or political analogy of "the moral and physical breakdown of Germany at the time, with a madman on the loose wreaking havoc on a distorted and off-balanced society, a metaphor for a country in chaos".
Anton Kaes, who called Caligari "an aggressive statement about war psychiatry, murder and deception", wrote that Alan's question to Cesare, "How long have I to live?" reflected the trauma German citizens experienced during the war, as that question was often on the minds of soldiers in the war, and family members back home concerned about their loved ones in the military. Francis' despair after Alan's murder can likewise be compared to the many soldiers who survived the war, but saw their friends die on the battlefield. Kaes noted other parallels between the film and war experiences, noting that Cesare attacked Alan at dawn, a common time for attacks during the war. Thomas Elsaesser called Caligari an "outstanding example of how 'fantastic' representations in German films from the early 1920s seem to bear the imprint of pressures from eternal events, to which they refer only through the violence with which they disguise and disfigure them."