The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells the tale of a madman, as told through the eyes of a man by the name of Francis. Francis and his friend Alan run into Caligari one day at a carnival, where Caligari is displaying his sleepwalking friend Cesare, whom he claims can answer any question he is asked. Alan asks Cesare when he will die, and Cesare tells him that he will die by dawn. This comes true, and Alan does die. Later, Francis and his fiance Jane are skeptical of the credibility of Caligari, and choose to investigate his behavior. This leads to Cesare kidnapping Jane and Caligari orders him to kill her. Cesare refuses, and carries Jane to safety, dying from exhaustion after doing so. In the end, Francis discovers that “Caligari” is really a director of an insane asylum obsessed by the actions of the real Caligari (a monk who traveled through Italy and ordered his sleepwalking friend to kill people). “Caligari” ends up in the insane asylum at the end of the film due to his mania. At the end of the film, Francis snaps out of his flashback, which was really just a delusion he was having, because he was, in fact, a patient in an insane asylum (along with Jane and Cesare), and Caligari was his doctor.
Francis is really the madman in this story, and aided in his best friend, Alan’s, death. To avoid facing the guilt and blame he placed on himself, Francis created what Freud would call a wish fulfillment, an aspiration or theme of an unconscious formation (dreams, hysterical symptoms), in which a wish is fulfilled in the imagination. Francis imagined a fantastical story of how how Alan died, and mistook this fantasy for reality in an attempt to escape the guilt he felt over Alan’s death. This allowed him to displace his guilt onto Cesare and Dr. Caligari, the “real” murderers.
In this sense, Francis was clearly exhibiting neurotic symptoms, in that he becomes alienated from reality in his retreat into his delusions and fantasies. The idea that Cesare and Dr. Caligari were solely responsible for Alan’s death was better than believing he, Francis was responsible, and thus he took his delusions as reality to escape the truth.
Francis’s delusions took on a dream-like composition. As Freud notes in his book on the interpretation of dreams, dreams are a segway into the unconscious mind. The heavy visual imagery latent in dreams provide clues into the minds unconscious. Francis’s portrayal of his delusion is very akin to a dream in that the visual imagery is rich and fanciful, like a dream, with distorted shapes and shadows.
The frustrations of the middle classes, the “white collar pretensions” and rationalizations of the working class, the psychological retreat of both these groups from reality, their ambivalent attitudes towards power and authority, and their symbolic quests for security and a way out of their dilemmas are among the psychological patterns which Kracauer finds reflected in the films produced and shown in Germany during this period. Many of these motifs are to be found in Caligari. Major themes of this film according to Kracauer, indicate ambivalent reactions to authority and express “a strong appetite for sadism and destruction.” Like the Nazi world which it foreshadows, this film is filled with “sinister portents, acts of terror and outbursts of panic.” The period in question, so crucial for Germany and the world, needs the kind of study which perhaps only the social psychologist can make” (Fearing, 1948, p. 174).