Movies could provide unexpected information on the state of medical knowledge in different historical periods. The first centenary of the German silent horror movie Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) by Robert Wiene (1873–1938) could be a timely occasion to reflect on the scientific debate of hypnosis and its legal implications between the 19th and the 20th century. In particular, this article describes the positions of the School of Salpêtrière (Charcot) and the School of Nancy (Bernheim) on the possibility of crimes committed by subjects under hypnosis and the influence of these theories on medical community and public opinion of Germany in the interwar period.

The year 2020 marks the first centenary of the release of the German silent horror movie Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (Fig. 1). The film, directed by Robert Wiene (1873–1938), is universally renowned as the paradigm of German Expressionist cinema of that period. It was also the first film to utilize surrealistic production design in a major way, anticipating some aspects of the Surrealism, which emerged in the mid-1920s and 1930s. The movie tells the story of the somnambulist Cesare and of the insane physician and magnetizer Dr. Caligari who uses hypnosis to force Cesare to commit murders. Male somnambulism was often used as a metaphor for larger political and social issues [1]. The movie is generally looked upon as a reflection on the Weimar Republic in the interwar period and a critique against Germany that forced a common and honest person – like Cesare – to become a soldier and to kill other men during World War I. Some scholars also argued that it could be considered as a prophetic representation of the irrational obedience to the Nazi authority [2]. Whatever its political significance was, the film may provide several information on neuropsychiatric theories of its days. The aim of this study was to analyse the aspects related to hypnosis and its legal implications that could be found in the movie, placing them in the context of the international scientific debate on hypnotic crime between the 19th and the 20th century.

Fig. 1.

The original poster by Otto Arpke and Erich Ludwig Stahl.

Fig. 1.

The original poster by Otto Arpke and Erich Ludwig Stahl.

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In the first scene of the movie, the spectator is introduced into an obscure garden, in which Francis (the protagonist) and an elderly man are sitting on a bench. Suddenly, an eerie woman passes by, and after Francis refers to her as his fiancée, he begins to tell the other man the strange story the 2 lovers share. Henceforth, Francis presents the story to us.

Alan and Francis, 2 students in the German village of Holstenwall, both friendly competing for Jane’s affection, plan to visit the travelling fair that came to town. Meanwhile, a hardly trustworthy odd man named Dr. Caligari, although being treated rudely by the town clerk, obtains the permit to exhibit his spectacle at the fair. That night, the very same clerk, who was so hostile to Caligari, is stabbed to death in his bed. The next day, while visiting the fair, the 2 students are drawn, along with a large crowd, to Caligari’s tent. There the doctor claims that Cesare, a somnambulist who sleeps in his coffin when not being controlled by Caligari’s hypnosis, is a clairvoyant, capable of answering every question asked. After Cesare is awakened from his slumber, an overexcited Alan runs towards the stage and asks the fortune teller how long he has to live. Cesare responds “Till dawn, tomorrow.” Later that night, Alan is murdered by a shadowy figure, stabbed to death. Thus, begins Francis’s investigation to find out the murderer of his friend Alan, assisted in this task by Jane and her father, Dr. Olsen. Their suspects are immediately driven towards Caligari.

A series of events climax with the attempted murder of Jane by the hands of Cesare, but stunned by her beauty, the somnambulist tries to kidnap the young woman and eventually dies in his flee. Caligari’s implication in the murders is confirmed by the discovery of a dummy placed in Cesare’s coffin, a deception created to deflect any suspicion on the somnambulist and himself. Caligari then flees, followed by Francis, and hides in an insane asylum. The protagonist becomes aware that Caligari is the director of such asylum, and he proceeds in his investigations with the help of the other doctors of the institute. Their quest leads to a volume kept in the director’s office, entitled “Somnambulism: A Compendium edited by the University of Uppsala published in 1726.” The volume presents the story of a mystic by the name of Calligari, who uses a somnambulist bent to his will to commit a series of murders in several towns of Northern Italy. By collecting other evidences in addition to this quite familiar story, it becomes clearer and clearer that the modern Caligari has become obsessed with unveiling the psychiatric secrets of the mystic Calligari, in order to, quoting his diary, “learn if it’s true that a somnambulist can be compelled to perform acts which, in a waking state, would be abhorrent to him… whether, in fact, he can be driven against his will to commit a murder.” The total mental breakdown of the director, shown in the film as a flashback, occurs when a new patient is brought to the asylum: a somnambulist. In the following scene, he is wondering at the convoluted streets of Holstenwall, plainly tormented, and swirling words start to appear all over the town, forming: “Du musst Caligari werden,” “You must become Caligari.”

Meanwhile Cesare is found dead by the police, so Francis and the doctors decide to show the corpse to Dr. Caligari, in his office. In a parallel with the scene in which he becomes insane on seeing the somnambulist the first time, he reveals his whole madness while looking at Cesare’s dead body and eventually attacks a member of his staff. He is, therefore, straitjacketed and thrown in a cell. Francis concludes his story.

The narrative returns to the present, where Francis and the old man go through the same courtyard of the asylum shown previously. The protagonist points to a harmless, flower-caressing “Cesare,” warning the old men not to ever ask that person his own fate, and then he approaches a catatonic “Jane,” who does not even recognize him. It becomes clear that they are all inmates of the institute.

When the director of the asylum appears, the protagonist loses his mind, yells that he is Caligari and tries to attack him, the person he blames for all his woe, but he is blocked by the staff, put in a straitjacket, and placed in the very same cell where Caligari was put in Francis’s delusion. The movie ends with a shot of the director saying that now he understands Francis’s obsession and knows how to cure him.

This movie provides several references to the neuropsychiatric knowledge of the era in which it was produced and released. It is interesting to note the resemblance between Dr. Caligari and Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) on a physical level (Fig. 2); they also share some interests, particularly in the field of hypnosis. Among the incredible amount of his contributions to neurology, Charcot showed a deep interest in hypnotism. His pupil Pierre Janet (1859–1947) stated, “Charcot did not invent hypnotist; that is incontestable; he was not even the first to notice its psychological value, but he has revealed it. Thanks to his famous name, he was able to place in full view and enter in the scientific field facts observed that up to then were in the shadows and surrounded by mystery and superstition” [3]. At the Salpêtrière hospital, his public lectures and lessons about hysteria were often conducted in amphitheatres and were followed by some of the most influent personalities of the 19th-century Paris. The circumstances, under which these “spectacles” were held, have raised many issues about the actual authenticity of the patients’ reaction, quite possibly exaggerated to please the audience. Hippolyte Bernheim (1840–1919) tended to dismiss these events as theatrical exhibitions and denigrated Charcot defining him a showman. As interestingly noted by Anton Keas, “this ambivalence in Dr. Charcot’s role finds its exact echo in the fictive figure of Dr. Caligari, whose ambivalent role in the film as psychiatrist and/or charlatan leaves the spectator forever guessing” [4].

Fig. 2.

The actor Werner Krauss (1884–1959) plays the role of Dr. Caligari.

Fig. 2.

The actor Werner Krauss (1884–1959) plays the role of Dr. Caligari.

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Hypnotism in 1920 was perceived with mixed opinions, mostly due to the great success of charlatans who used to stage performances alike Dr. Caligari’s ones. Charcot used hypnotism to better understand the pathophysiology of hysteria. His researches led him to believe that “hypnotizability and hysteria were aspects of the same underlying abnormal neurological condition” [5]. According to Charcot and to his pupil Georges Gilles de la Tourette (1857–1904), “grand hypnotisme” followed three main steps: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. As evidenced by Stefan Andriopoulos, the representation of the awakening of Cesare in the scene of Caligari’s performance follows quite precisely the medical nosography of “grand hypnotisme,” showing the passage from the lethargic state to somnambulism and emphasizing the sleepwalker’s unnatural wide-open eyes (Fig. 3) [6].

Fig. 3.

The awakening of Cesare from the lethargic state to somnambulism.

Fig. 3.

The awakening of Cesare from the lethargic state to somnambulism.

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In the same years, scientific community debated on the possibility to force a person of good principles and honesty to commit crimes under hypnosis. The first discussions on the subject dated back to the late 1700s, but the problem of crimes against the moral order and the law committed under hypnosis constituted a topic of debate in the years from 1880 to 1900 [7]. In particular, Bernheim, exponent of the School of Nancy, thought that the hypnotizer had almost unlimited power over the hypnotized, so forcing a man to commit a crime against his own will. He also pointed out that under hypnosis, it was possible to suggest false memories [7]. At the end of the 19th century, the Swiss psychiatrist Auguste Forel (1848–1931) conducted some experiments to confirm the possibility of hypnotic crime. He gave a revolver – previously loaded with blanks – to an older hypnotized man; the psychiatrist forced him to fire a shot at another man, who the hypnotized believed to be an evil person [6]. Forel believed to have definitely proved the plausibility of hypnotic crimes, but still, not everyone in the scientific community shared the same opinion. The acknowledgement of the hypnotic crime was indeed a very important part of the quarrel between the School of Nancy (Bernheim) and the School of Salpêtrière (Charcot) [8, 9].

In detail, Gilles de la Tourette criticized Bernheim’s assumptions on this subject in a book on the medico-legal aspects of hypnotism. In particular, he stated “Criminal suggestion cannot be a dangerous instrument outside of ‘laboratory crimes’, where it is controlled; rape is the only crime associated with hypnotism, and it is committed against and not by the hypnotized person” [10]. Other influential figures of that sector – such as Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916), Joseph Delboeuf (1831–1896), and Otto Binswanger (1852–1929) – debated on the awareness of the hypnotized person during the crime [6]. In detail, Delboeuf described “these arranged dramas” as “devoid of truth, unable to deceive the actor, the spectators, or the inventor” [11], while Binswanger stated that “these actions are invented crimes of whose purely theatrical significance […] the hypnotized patients are fully aware” [12].

The main critique was that the patients were able to distinguish real and invented. Bernheim, therefore, recognized that on “certain somnambulists,” this kind of experiments would not work because they knew they were “performing a play.” At the same time, he also stated that under the influence of suggestion either during sleep or after wakening, “certain somnambulists” could execute with docility what they have been ordered [6]. The jurist Jules Liégeois (1833–1908) and the expert of forensic medicine Henri Beaunis (1830–1921) supported Bernheim in his studies on hypnotic crime, participating to the debate in courtrooms during famous processes regarding cases of murders apparently committed under hypnosis, such as “L’affaire Chambige” (1888) and the “Gouffé Case” (1890) [8, 9, 13]. In both of these famous cases, the court only partially recognized a potential role of hypnosis and suggestion in the crimes, not clearly indicating it in the final verdicts.

The legal implications of hypnosis were also debated in Germany in the same years. In December 1894, the Upper Bavarian Jury Court debated the case of Czesław Czyński (1858–1932), accused to have used hypnosis to seduce a young woman and to commit other crimes [14, 15]. The verdict had not reflected any decision about whether the woman had been hypnotized. Czyński was only convicted of the charge of fraud and forgery but not on the charge of crimes against morality [15]. In German popular and academic discourse around hypnotic crime, the “Czyński Case” became considered as a first example of “the potential of hypnosis to be wielded as a weapon against the unwary and weak-willed” [15]. So, it comes as no surprise that the Reich banned public hypnosis, sustaining that such demonstrations posed risks to public health and order in 1895, that is, the following year when the trial started. The scientific debate on the danger of hypnosis led the German Penal Code to indicate that criminal acts committed by a hypnotized subject, during hypnosis or afterwards due to posthypnotic suggestion, could be exempt from punishment [16]. The Berlin physician Albert Moll (1862–1939) provided an important contribution to the scientific debate on hypnotic crime. He was in agreement with the School of Nancy, recognizing the possibility that a person could be made to commit a crime through hypnotic suggestion. Moll was an expert witness in court cases involving claims about hypnotic influence, including some famous trials in the 1910 and 1920s [16].

These cases captured the public imagination, also thanks to the extensive press coverage in France, in Germany, and in other countries. In 1893, the American writer Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) published a short story The Hypnotist, in which the narrator describes his use of hypnosis in committing a variety of crimes. In the following year, the British writer George du Maurier (1834–1896) published his sensational novel Trilby with the main character the evil hypnotist Svengali. It quickly became one of the most popular and successful novels of its day. The theme of the hypnotic control could be also found in Dracula, written by Bram Stoker (1847–1912) in 1897. Writers and novelists caught the interest of public opinion towards hypnosis, mind control, and their legal implications, embracing the theories of the School of Nancy.

In this contest, the movie by Robert Wiene – the first cinematic representation of hypnotic crimes – continued to give credit to Bernheim’s ideas. The film tried to use the psychiatric scientific literature to support these theories, showing a fictional treatise on somnambulism published at the University of Uppsala in 1726. As known, the first studies on animal magnetism and hypnosis were conducted only in the second part of the 18th century, although some studies on somnambulism as sleep disorders were published at the beginning of the 1700s [17].

Cesare, the subject controlled by Dr. Caligari, is a somnambulist. In that period, magnetic cabinets were opened in all main cities of Europe: supposed somnambulists and their magnetizers maintained that they could foretell the future and gave consultations on diseases [18-20]. These cabinets were typical of Southern Europe and, particularly, of Italy [21], so it comes as no surprise that Caligari and Cesare bear Italian names. The name of Caligari was probably chosen for its resemblance to the occultist Cagliostro (1743–1795); some authors believed that it was an unconscious message for the Germany of 1920 to adopt the Italian model of Fascism [22].

The choice of starring a somnambulist and his magnetizer may be based on neuropsychiatric theories of that period, which sustained that people who were often hypnotized could be also more easily driven to commit crimes under hypnosis. Indeed, they were more suggestible and more inclined to obey the hypnotist’s orders [7]. Since in the magnetic cabinets somnambulists continuously underwent real or fake hypnotic inductions, they were the perfect victims of evil magnetizers. Cesare is depicted as a highly hypnotizable person; as a result, he enters a highly suggestible trance state under Caligari’s commands. At the end of the movie, Cesare actually disobeys his master, and instead of killing Jane, he follows his own will and kidnaps her. The love for Jane is an opportunity for redemption for Cesare, so demonstrating that love is stronger than hypnosis.

Several studies recently demonstrated that movies might be a useful tool to understand how audience perceives science and medicine nowadays and in the pastimes [23, 24]. This consideration also applies to the neurological field [25-27], so historians of neurology and clinical neurologists should see these movies more carefully, without underestimating their impact on public opinion.

The theme of the hypnotic crime has fascinated the audience in the following decades. Caligari, Svengali, and their epigone Dr. Mabuse – made famous by three films directed by Fritz Lang (1890–1976) in 1922, 1933, and 1960 – became characters of series of horror and thriller movies in the following decades. Several films, such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and television series were inspired by this theme. Hypnosis and somnambulism still stimulate the curiosity of the audience, although modern scientists and scholars are less interested in the topic of hypnotic crime.

In 1924, Albert Moll discussed the suggestive power of the movies of Caligari and Mabuse, advising that such productions should be critically examined by the authority [13]. Indeed, he thought that these films served as an inducement to crime. These considerations lead us to reflect on the suggestive power of cinema and media, at the beginnings of the 20th century and nowadays. Using the same words of Andriopoulos, we can conclude: “the filmic representations of hypnosis function as allegories of early cinema itself. […] audience members might succumb to an irresistible hypnotic influence emanating from the cinematographic apparatus – very much like […] Caligari’s somnambulist medium Cesare” [28].

The authors have no support to report.

The authors certify that there is no actual or potential conflict of interest in relation to this article.

The authors have no funding to report.

M.R. and P.Z. created the concept of the study, supervised the research work, and critically reviewed and revised the manuscript; D.S. drafted the initial manuscript; and M.B. and R.M. critically reviewed and revised the manuscript.

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