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“Psychiatrists; Somnambulists: The Influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari On Brian Fuller’s Hannibal,” by meejaleibling


Following the end of season 2, Hannibal show runner Bryan Fuller described his approach to the source material as being a …“mash-up of Thomas Harris’ DJ instinct”. I guess he means that the show will continue to reinterpret Harris’ original novels in a way which, whilst still acknowledging the importance of including certain characters and events as necessary in maintaining Hannibal‘s, well,Hannibal-ness, the ordering, representation and juxtaposition of elements are not constrained by adherence to the canonical chronology. Just like fan-fiction. This is Oh-So-PoMo and Fuller’s approach shares commonalities with a raft of other show runners and head writers who are adapting books for television (Mofftiss, anyone?). But, as Barthes sagely posited in Death of the Author, the “text is a tissue of quotation drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” So, in adapting a work for a different medium, it is necessary that the source material be the key touchstone, but a myriad of other influences shape each cultural artefact.

In guiding students through an analysis of Hannibal’s first episode Apéritif, I came across one shot which resonated with me particularly because it reminded me of a moment in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920, dir. Robert Weine). If one shot was a potential reference to Caligari, then what other connections between a contemporary American network drama and a German Expressionist film could there be? That moment was the genesis of this meta, and it has proved a rich hunting ground (pun intended).

A Tale of Two Doctors

I’m a huge film geek, as well as being a TV geek too. So much so that I get paid to enthuse younger minds and help them make sense of media and film texts. My work leads me to constantly consider and make connections between the case studies I use. But, why should connections betweenHannibal and a 92 year old German silent film matter to anyone else? Because once you look, there are loads. And because Bryan Fuller, as a film school graduate, will ABSOLUTELY be aware of Caligari. As will horror director David Slade. It is a canonical Film Studies text, as it is an important film in understanding the development of the horror genre, in particular. A lot of these connections don’t appear to be Harris installations (although, I’m not an expert on the books, so please forgive me if I misstate something), and so their inclusion may be attributed to those responsible in bringingHannibal to TV screens. If you love to look at this show and marvel at its gorgeousness of form and aesthetic, an awareness of the connections with Caligari will deepen your appreciation for the show’s cleverness. I promise.

If you know a bit about German Expressionism and have seen Caligari, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs. If you don’t, here’s what you need to know: Between 1920 – 1927 German film makers created a few films which were vital in the development of the horror genre. These were a reflection of Germany’s situation. Following the horrendous events of the Great War, the German people were suffering. Economic and political instability; a consequence of the German defeat, provided a nightmare for the population. They had lost of a generation of their young men. The ‘lucky’ survivors were often gruesomely maimed and disfigured. Murder and rape rates were significantly elevated. In his article, Where the Horror Came From David Hudson notes “Weimar Germany had more than what you might call its fair share of serial killers. There was Karl Denke, who killed more than 30 people, making soap from their fat, buttons from their bones and purses from their skins. He supported himself by selling “smoked pork” to his fellow famished villagers in Münsterberg”. Sound familiar?

Apart from the international humiliation of admitting to being in the wrong by signing the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to reconcile itself with a new reflection and the worrying realisation that those who had ruled them had misled them. The artists and thinkers, liberated by the abolition of censorship in the new democratic Weimar Germany, were keen to utilise the potential for collaboration that cinema offered. These creatives from fine art, architecture and theatre worked together and produced films that were best described as Expressionist. They were not realist or authentic depictions of the world; instead they were oblique, dreamlike, exaggerated reflections.



The first of this movement was The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Although directed by Robert Weine for Decla, history documents that the true creative forces behind the film were the two writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, who were inspired by events in their own lives. The whole film is viewable hereCaligari is the story of Francis, a young man in a small German town. He relates the unfortunate events of his past to an older gentleman. We see them talking together briefly at the beginning of the film before it cuts into flashback for the embedded primary narrative:

A fayre arrives in Francis’ town. The next day, the town clerk is found murdered. Oblivious to any potential connection between the two, Francis and his best friend Alan decide to go to the fayre. They are drawn into an attraction by a round, bespectacled, elderly doctor. This doctor, Caligari, claims to possess a sleepwalker who can predict the future. As part of the act, the somnambulist Cesare is revealed and he tells Alan, that he will die. That night, a shadowy figure enters Alan’s bed chamber and stabs him to death.



Francis and the father of the virginal doe-eyed Jane, seek to reveal the identity of the murderer. Suspicion is on Caligari and eventually he is revealed as the one responsible, as he is able to instruct Cesare to carry out attacks whilst ‘asleep’. The discovery of this truth culminates in Caligari making his escape on foot out of the town followed by Francis. Caligari disappears into a nearby asylum. He is revealed to be the director of the institution who has been trying to replicate the unorthodox experiments of the real Caligari – a 18th century monk who was experimenting with the ability to control a somnambulist.


The Director is eventually confronted with the evidence of his madness and evil deeds and is strait-jacketed and locked up. This is the ending that Janowitz and Mayer wanted. However, the following ending was added at the behest of Decla executives, as they thought it was too unsettling and ultimately carried a message of how those in authority were untrustworthy: Francis is revealed to be a patient in the same hospital. The Director is in charge of his care. Francis is committed to his delusion – that The Director is the monstrous and murderous Doctor Caligari. The film ends with the protagonist himself being strait-jacketed and taken to a cell. The Director explains that he finally understands Francis’ mania and can cure him.


I’m not going to recount Hannibal‘s narrative, because if you’re reading this, then you probably are more than a little familiar with it. I’m going to explore Caligari‘s bearing on Hannibal in terms of genre, narrative, character, aesthetics, specific moments of connection and theme. Be warned; below there are some spoilers, so if you have not seen all of Hannibal seasons 1 and 2, you might want to revisit this once you have.


Christian Metz outlined a chronology of development for film genres: Experimental, Classic, Parody and Deconstruction. Although a film theory, the mechanisms that facilitate genres encoded by producers and then understood by audiences are cross-platform. Thus Hannibal clearly utilises the iconography, the narrative tropes, the archetypes, the approaches to aesthetics, editing and sound design which allow viewers to clearly decode it as a hybrid crime drama, psychological thriller and horror genre text. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a clear example a film that fits within Metz’s Experimental period. Metz suggested that these films are crucial in establishing a blueprint for future genre films, precisely because they are the first of their type. Caligari contains much that would categorise it as horror; the shadowy night-time intruder with murderous intentions, the virginal female whose life and innocence is at stake, a powerful and insane serial killer, use of chiaroscuro and an emphasis on oblique and distorted aesthetics. Similarly, the film also explores madness and obsession. It has a psychological institution as its backdrop. We can identity these elements as evidence of the film being a generic ancestor of contemporary psychological thrillers, Hannibalincluded. As I said in my intro, Fuller et al. are likely very aware of this film’s importance and have used it as an important touchstone text particularly in the creation of season one. If we accept this is likely, then according to Metz’s model Hannibal becomes a deconstructionist text as it does, in part, allow us to question the role of genre for contemporary audiences. It reframes the genre conventions and treats it subject matter somewhat unconventionally. For example Bryan Fuller has refused to use sexual violence as part of the spectacle of his horror. The horror in Hannibal, despite criticisms of the approach to realism throughout, is actually grounded in a more realistic root. Sady Doyle sums this up nicely; “The biggest scare of the first season wasn’t a gory corpse display—though we got lots of those—but the revelation that Will had encephalitis, and Hannibal was preventing him from getting treatment. The primal fear here isn’t axe-murder, it’s abandonment; all the blood in the world can’t scare us more profoundly than the idea that the people who care about us may be faking it.” (x)


Additionally, the show seems to remind us that we are so used to seeing death presented on screen as being inconsequential, or at least divorced from reality. In this regard, Hannibalasks us to rethink our response to this common generic trope. Todd VanDerWerff suggests“[w]hat so many other shows forget is that the lives that end are all human lives, people who had plans and hopes and dreams that were cruelly snuffed out by madmen. […] Every single death on this show matters in a way that television rarely manages. In some episodes, those deaths matter because we get a sense of the lives that were ended.” (x)


Both Hannibal and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari have a couple of simple narrative similarities. Firstly both are largely crime dramas with the identity of a murderer as the central dramatic enigma. In both cases the disequilibrium is established in the narrative by the discovery of a murder. In Apéritif Will discovers Elise Nichols’ body, whilst in Caligari the town clerk is found murdered off-screen.

Secondly, Hannibal Lecter and The Director posing as Caligari are both psychiatrists who manipulate patients. Of course the difference is that Caligari manipulates Cesare in a fashion which makes him a zombie-like instrument of the doctor’s will whereas Hannibal’s manipulation of Will is more subtle and complex. In season 1 Hannibal does not use Will in order to commit murders in a comparative fashion, but ultimately he does engineer Will as an obvious scapegoat for his crimes.

"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt


In Caligari Cesare is identified as a somnambulist – a sleepwalker. The same idea is present in Hannibal as much of season one focuses on Will’s nightmares, placing us and him in his dream world for significant moments. In one sequence from season 1’s Coquilles Will sleepwalks barefoot down an empty road at night whilst been nudged by the Ravenstag. The symbolic nature of this creature has been well documented as initially being a manifestation of the Chesapeake Ripper in Will’s mind. As the audience is aware that the Ripper is in fact Hannibal, one might read the sequence to suggest that Hannibal is influencing Will’s journey.


The narratives of both Hannibal and Caligari share some less obvious and more complex commonalities; both are unrestricted in the main and so allow the audience information that is unknown to the protagonist, creating dramatic irony. That said, as Francis is the narrator of the story in Caligari, this seems contradictory. The events we see in the embedded narrative are the story as he wants to tell it; they are not memory as they include moments that Francis was not present for like Caligari’s encounter with the town clerk and Alan’s death. The story he tells us is unrestricted. Of course, the reveal at the end of the film allows us to forgive the inconsistencies between a recollected sequence of events and an embellished narrative: None of it was real, so what does it matter anyway?

Similarly in Hannibal, from the outset the audience is presented a particular vision of Hannibal. His introduction, halfway through Apéritif, is preceded by Will’s line “He’s eating them”. The he in question is not Lecter but Garrett Jacob Hobbs. Nevertheless, the line juxtaposes neatly with the introduction of the eponymous doctor. His entrance emphasises the act of eating flesh to clearly and loudly imply cannibalism. Of course, Lecter is an iconic character with baggage for the audience; so keeping the us in the dark about Hannibal’s true nature was always out of the question. Through the course of the first thirteen episodes we are privy to many events and conversations that Will is not – exchanges between Lecter and Crawford, Crawford and Bloom, Tobias, Franklyn and Lecter, etc. Therefore an unrestricted narrative structure facilitates suspense for the audience as we await Will’s clear comprehension of what is hidden underneath Hannibal’s “very well tailored person suit”.


In Caligari, Francis acts as a narrator, one who is proven to be unreliable by the end of proceedings. However, Will is not the narrator of Hannibal; it wouldn’t make narrative sense given the above. But from the outset of Apéritif, we are given access to Will’s unique view of the world to convey his empathetic abilities. Our identification with Will as a protagonist is strengthened by the frequency with which we are allowed to see through his eyes. As noted by Hugh Dancy in his Season 2 Post Mortem interview, without this mechanism and the emphasis on Will’s relationship with his canine pack, Will is “just a prick.” We witness Will’s increasingly disturbing visions and nightmares. He experiences blackouts, and the narrative delivers similar ellipses for us. InSavoureux, Will coughs up Abigail’s severed ear and neither he nor we know how it got there. As his psychological state deteriorates throughout the season, the audience begin to doubt Will’s perception of reality, just as Will does himself. In this sense he can be seen as unreliable, and as we are more closely positioned to see the diegesis through his eyes; his narrative function is somewhat narrator-like.

This also connects to another key concept for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and German Expressionism; the films were often described as dreamlike or oneiric. Caligari presents a seemingly simplified narrative in a cinematic space which is deliberately not realist and which foregrounds the importance of the aesthetics in the viewer’s ability to decipher meaning. The result is a film that is not constrained by realist representations or logic. For example, an early scene in the film presents Caligari’s visit to the town clerk’s office. The elements of the set are distorted to convey meaning; the clerk’s power is emphasised through his positioning at a desk that is unnaturally high.


Bryan Fuller has commented on more than one occasion that his approach to realism withHannibal is similarly loose “because the reality of it [crime] is covered so well on other shows”. The series requires more of the audience’s good will in suspending their disbelief. For some, he’s clearly pushing the boat a little too far; the deconstructions of Hannibal’s exit from his house following the ‘Red Dinner’ at the climax of Mizumono and his donning of Will’s jacket have demonstrated this. (x) For me, though, I always found the more ostentatious and elaborate displays of death problematic in terms of real world logic. How did the Angel Maker Elliot Buddish make his own wings and suspend himself? How did Hannibal install Flower Tree Man in that car park on his own? What this demonstrates is that even outside the designated oneiric sequences of Will’s visions and dreams and like the creators of Caligari, Fuller’s presentation of reality is not constrained by a desire to be realistic.

When considering character in both texts, we can draw some interesting comparisons. As I’ve already stated there is a clear link between Will in Hannibal and Cesare in Caligari; both are subjects of manipulation by trusted, powerful individuals and both have strong connections to a dream state. However Cesare is not the protagonist of Caligari, and so some consideration of the contrasts between Will and Francis are also useful:

Both of the protagonists are righteous; they work for justice in an effort to restore narrative equilibrium. They are cast as protectors of their womenfolk. Francis and Will are, in some way, outsiders to the law enforcement institutions that are tasked to bring the killers to justice. But both are allowed to participate in the investigations and similarly become possessed by a desire to uncover the truth. Broadly speaking, their narrative journeys are also similar as their determination to resolve the enigma leads to some psychological deterioration. Significantly, they also have dichotomous relationships to a significant psychiatrist and their own psychological states. In Caligari, Francis experiences psychological disequilibrium first in reaction to the violent death if his best friend. This is then compounded by his confusion at events as he perceives them. This malady is a reaction to the actions of The Director/Caligari. In the wider narrative we learn that Francis is mad, and we are never told what has bought him to the hospital. We are presented with the real doctor who Francis has cast as his murderous villain. This doctor is presented in opposition to that image and the final note of the film has the doctor declaring that he may be able to cure Francis. In Hannibal, Will’s psychological disequilibrium is not primarily affected by Hannibal; we understand that his encephalitis is the main factor in the deterioration of his mental state throughout the first season. However, what is clear is that Hannibal does not help Will, in fact he is obstructive and manipulative. His deliberate concealment of Will’s medical condition is horribly abusive. But it is not until early season two that we get the reveal of the extent of Hannibal’s psychological and physical manipulation of Will, during this period. We learn this as Will remembers. Hannibal does not present us with an embedded narrative like Caligari; but it does present us with a psychiatrist with a Janus face; the concealed malignant Lecter that the audience are aware of from the start and that Will comes to recognise. Hannibal’s public face is in opposition to his ‘true’ nature, he is a well-meaning man in the eyes of both Crawford and Bloom.



This leads to a contemplation of the other similarities in the characterisation of the antagonists of both narratives. Dr. Lecter is a psychiatrist of some note, as the first scene between Crawford and Hannibal establishes for us clearly. His education and intellect have led to a highly affluent existence. Hannibal’s practice room contains indicators in the mise-en-scene of the extent of his knowledge: the bookcases lined with books and a large antique desk which suggests the status that knowledge has earned him. In the case of Caligari, Francis learns the true identity of the eponymous doctor when the asylum staff lead him to the Director’s office; a space we are introduced to along with our protagonist. Although this film offers a more primitive use of mise-en-scene, we see similar signifiers of power and knowledge: Numerous books clutter the office, arranged in untidy piles. As with Hannibal, their ubiquity signals an impressive intellect, whilst the lack of order in their placement suggests that The Director has become consumed by his obsession.



Interestingly, the pleasing order of the important and functional elements of Hannibal’s spaces, not just his work space, suggests Hannibal is utterly in control. The Director’s large desk is positioned to draw our eye towards it. Its presence in the mise-en-scene connotes the authority of The Director. Both characters, then, are presented as respected, educated, affluent and powerful figures that have a murderous capacity. Both are medical doctors who specialise in psychological conditions and both use unorthodox methods. In Hannibal, this is reinforced in pretty much every scene in which Chilton and Hannibal converse in private. In Caligari, The Director’s diaries reveal this same approach to his practice. Both are represented as being interested in the extent to which another person can be manipulated to do things that are against their will.

As a side note, the way in which Chilton cast as the Chesapeake Ripper by Hannibal in season 2 is another interesting point of correlation between the texts. As the director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Dr. Frederick Chilton is presented to law enforcement by Hannibal as a character in the same mould as The Director in Caligari – the head of an modern day asylum, using his education in psychiatry and position to get away with murder.

The body count in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is understandably lower than in Hannibal. Two deaths are presented to us as Francis recounts his story. The first is the signal of disequilibrium and the second, Alan’s death, is the disrupting event for the protagonist which motivates his quest to reveal the truth. Alan is presented as a buoyant and naive youth; we are meant to understand that his death is a tragedy. However, the first victim, whose death or body are never shown on screen, is the town clerk. We meet him once; he is presented in an early scene which depicts Dr. Caligari seeking to obtain a permit to exhibit his attraction at the fayre. Their interaction is brief, but the clerk is curt and abrupt. We are shown a close up of the Doctor’s face to emphasise his displeasure at the rudeness. His subsequent murder, then, can be read as an act of revenge for his lack of civility and manners. It appears both of our physicians have an extreme intolerance for a lack of social courtesy.

A broader point about the representation of the antagonists relates to their cultural and national identity. Both Dr. Caligari and Dr. Hannibal Lecter are presented in their respective texts as characters imbued with exotic ‘otherness’, by which I mean, they are characters who are foreign outsiders to the dominant setting. Caligari is set in small town in Germany and one of the strategies used by Janovich and Mayer to heighten the audience’s perception of his threat is the creation of a character that is not German. Caligari, and indeed, Cesare are Italianate names which communicate their identity as outsiders. This is further compounded by their introduction as part of the fayre, which is used to associate these characters with existing ideas in the audience’s consciousness of the transgressive and superstitious carnivalesque culture. Of course, Thomas Harris encoded Lecter with exotic otherness by creating a character from Lithuania and placing him in an American context. In the most iconic adaptation, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter has an English accent. Here Lecter is still associated with otherness, but it is one that an American audience more readily associate with historical power and authority, not an exotic and unknown threat. In casting Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter in his version, Fuller allows that exotic otherness to become more significant. I surely wasn’t the only one who needed the subtitles on for Mikkelsen’s scenes in the first few episodes. His exotic otherness cannot be ignored in the show. Mikkelsen’s aesthetic and restrained but graceful physicality in this role connotes that Lecter is a creature created in a different mould; he seems divinely alien. It is a smart casting choice which serves to accentuate our perceptions of Hannibal’s detachment from the world around him. More than reminding us that he is ‘other’, it subtly hints at his cosmic malevolence.


With contemporary eyes, the aesthetics of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari might appear rudimentary. With its theatre-like painted flats and obvious staging, it doesn’t appear to resemble the filmed fiction we’re used to. However, it’s important to recognise that the visuals of Caligari and other films of the German Expressionist movement were innovative and have cast a long shadow (pardon the pun) over the rest of cinema history. The German Expressionist approach was a collaborative one which drew on the expertise of visual artists from a range of disciplines. The aesthetics of the films were often prioritised over any attempt to create verisimilitude. Broadly, the visual style of the movement can be characterised by the use of stark geometric forms within the frames, oblique lines used to connote disequilibrium, and a use of visual chiaroscuro to match the thematic chiaroscuro. Famously, the exaggerated shadows in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were painted onto the sets to further emphasise the contrast between light and dark. It’s from these films that the blueprints for horror and crime genre filmed fiction were sketched out.



We can see the impact of this lineage in Hannibal. In Apéritif, Will imagines the way in which Elise Nichol’s body has been impaled on stag antlers. This moment is accompanied by a vision which shows Nichol’s lifeless body, clothed in a virginal white nightgown elevated into a pitch black space. The antlers appear from nowhere and skewer her torso, introducing vibrant red into the previous monochromatic vision. Later, when Hannibal is introduced, the moment is heightened by the use of low-key lighting to emphasise the shadows surrounding the character, clearly connoting his villainous identity. Visually, Hannibal uses chiaroscuro frequently, but it’s interesting to consider how this contrast of extremes is presented in the narrative. It might be difficult to initially think of these moments of lightness that counterpoint the horrific abuse and violence. For me, it’s useful to remind myself that Bryan Fuller described the show as a comedy in his Post Mortem interview. There are lighter moments, although these are still juxtaposed and affected by the more powerful and dominating dark tone of the show. For me, a stand out moment which reflects the show’s ability to offset the macabre with the absurd is Hannibal’s line in Su-zakana“Peter, is that your social worker inside that horse?

Shots & Sequences

I just wanted to take the time to briefly highlight the two key moments within the first episode ofHannibal which appear to reference Caligari directly. The first being when Will re-enacts Elise Nichols’ original attack in her bedroom:

“In a medium close up, we are shown Elise, asleep. Her body language reinforces her vulnerability through its openness. This presentation of unknowing female victim asleep in white is common in horror and can be traced back to the earliest horror films (see Lil Dagover in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Greta Schroeder in Nosferatu). Again Will acts as if he is the attacker; this is a troubling and challenging representation of our protagonist.” (x)

As noted above, the attack resonates with Caligari, drawing on the moment in the film when Cesare (played by Conrad Veit) creeps into the bedroom of the virginal and sleeping Jane (played by Lil Dagover). This is a horrifying and tense scene as he enters through the window in the rear of the frame and slowly, silently approaches Jane sleeping in the foreground. Cesare is dressed in black, which creates a binary opposition with the white bedding and nightgown which surrounds the sleeping maiden. He lurks over her; he raises a blade above her body in a symbolic act which threatens both her life and her feminine purity. However, he doesn’t immediately attack, apparently enthralled by her beauty. She does wake to discover him standing above her and a violent and distressing struggle ensues before he manages to subdue her enough to take her hostage and drag her out on to the roof tops.


These two scenes have a few obvious points of comparison: firstly the gender dynamics of the male attacker and the female victim. Although this is such a frequent trope that it isn’t very fruitful to suggest that this supports the idea ofThe Cabinet of Dr Caligari being used as a key reference text for Hannibal. However, the presentation of both of the victims as being more vulnerable as they are sleeping, and with both presented in white to emphasise their virginity whilst a male penetrates their private domain without permission is more persuasive in this regard. Furthermore, both attackers appear to take a moment to savour the peacefulness of their victim before the violent attack.

The other moment is from further on in the episode, and is actually the moment that became the starting point for this exploration. Following the initial entrance of Hannibal, we are introduced to Franklyn during a session with the doctor. However he is presented enigmatically at first, blurred in the background of a shallow focus shot. He reaches out towards the camera whilst asking for help. His hand is in focus. In Caligari, there is a similar shot included in the sequence which depicts the attack on Alan. This equivalent shot is read in-scene as an act of defence against the unseen aggressor. Accepting the replicated shot in Hannibal as a knowing intertextual reference to Caligariprovides a neat little moment which suggests that Hannibal, whilst appearing as a figure who aids those in distress, has the capacity to be an aggressor.



Over the course of its 26 episodes, Hannibal has had space and time to develop and explore several themes. What’s interesting is that many of them match up with the themes that characterised German Expressionist films and which are explored within The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Fear of manipulation and distrust of authority were common themes in German Expressionist Cinema as their inclusion reflected Weimar Germany’s acknowledgement that the population had bought into the lies told them by those in power, a belief that had drawn them into the Great War and had ultimately resulted in the catastrophic loss of German lives. Contextually, you might not see much that links this with America in 2012, when the show first went into production. And yet, following 9/11 the US has been drawn into two conflicts which have led to the loss of significant amount American lives. Similarly to Weimar Germany, there is some public acceptance that those in power misled the population in order to execute these actions. I came across a description of the reality of life for German people following their defeat as being ‘horrified by the everyday’ (source unknown). I think this phrase can also be used to describe 21st century America; a country which is increasingly media saturated, desensitised to violence through entertainment media and used to sensationalised and overly dramatic rolling news. It is a country where, sadly, gun laws facilitate massacres which occur with alarming regularity. In contemporary America life seems to be as cheap as it was in Weimar Germany.

Now, as then, liberal and left wing creative ideologists use their chosen medium to explore the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, with those in power depicted as capable of acts of gross acts of harm or negligence towards those over whom they have power. In Caligari, this is most clearly demonstrated by the wilful use of the somnambulist by The Director to carry out acts of violence under instruction. For the time, the metaphor is shockingly clear; The Director represents the Kaiser and his officials who instructed German military personnel to commit acts of aggression against opposition forces. In Hannibal, the expies aren’t so clear, but we are presented with many characters that have authority and power over others who abuse that position in some fashion. Hannibal is the obvious and primary culprit of this; his manipulation of Will increases throughout the episodes, but in Kaiseki, we see him insert Abigail’s ear into Will’s gullet. I could make a meal about the instances of Hannibal’s abuse of his power, particularly his dereliction of his duty of care as a psychiatrist. However, that’s obvious and well-trodden ground.


The other characters who have authority over others and who are manipulative are more interesting and unexpected: Jack Crawford uses reassurance and emotional blackmail to get Will to help him, and despite promising Alana that he can ensure that Will is protected emotionally and psychologically, Crawford continues to push Will and then leaves him exposed and vulnerable. At the beginning of season 2, Crawford recognises that this was a failing on his part. Frederick Chilton has a significant amount of authority, but we are led to understand that he has exploited this power, particularly in relation to his treatment of Dr. Abel Gideon. Garrett Jacob Hobbs as a father displays authority over his daughter, who he manipulates to be bait for his victims. Freddie Lounds is shown to be manipulative and deceitful in her interactions with Hannibal, Abigail and Alana. Mason Verger has power over his sister and his treatment of her is abusive as he shows no regard for her at all. Social worker Clark Ingram attempts to frame vulnerable Peter Bernardone for his crimes. Katherine Pimms abuses the trust her clients place in her. Interestingly, Will also exploits the fact that orderly murder fanboy Matthew Brown feels a kinship with him and uses Brown to attempt to take out Hannibal. In short: pretty much anybody with power over anyone else is shown to use that power to manipulate others in order to get what they want, except for Alana. Poor Alana.

Obsession is a simpler key theme in Hannibal as in Caligari. This is a common theme in horror, psychological thriller and crime drama genres, so its exploration is hardly unexpected. We’re used to seeing our investigator protagonist becoming obsessed with resolving the central dramatic enigma often with negative consequences for their personal health and well-being; similar characters exist inThe Killing, Homeland, 24 and True Detective, among others. Throughout the first half of season 2, Will is depicted as obsessed with revealing Hannibal’s true nature and gaining revenge for his imprisonment. In Caligari, the obsession of The Director transitions from obsession into madness clearly for the audience, as we see him hallucinate the words ‘Du mußt Caligari werden!’ (You must become Caligari!).


However the journey for Will seems to be the reverse of that taken by The Director in Caligari, instead transitioning from madness into obsession. This concept of metamorphosis clearly links to Will’s journey into the latter half of season 2, as by becoming a killer and Hannibal’s apparent protégé, he appears to be transforming into a creature that is similar to Hannibal. This idea is further foreshadowed in the sequence which shows Will transforming sprouting antlers in Mukozuke.


Again, madness is an expected theme in both texts as both focus around psychiatrists, psychological maladies and psychological institutions. Many characters in Hannibal display characteristics which can be easily read by the audience as ‘mad’; Abel Gideon, Kathrine Pimms, Randall Tier, Georgia Madchen and Matthew Brown, for example. The most narratively crucial example of the madness manifested in Hannibal, though, is Will. Several sequences and scenes allow the audience to understand that Will’s grasp on reality is fracturing – the ease with which his reality is replaced by his visions, like his conversation with Buddish in Coquilles, his perception of sound in Fromage and the distorted clock he draws for Hannibal in Buffet Froid all escalate the audience’s perception of Will’s slipping grasp of reason and reality


This is important character detail, because we are not shown the extent of Hannibal’s manipulation of Will in the first season. Will seems mad by the end of Savoureux to everyone including himself. The fact that we strongly suspect him to be innocent does not preclude unstable mental state. In Hannibal, the most obvious person to be presented as mad – the eponymous cannibal – is actually portrayed as being one of the most rational and psychologically even of ensemble personalities. Perhaps this is one of the characteristics which make him so very, very scary.

Both The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Hannibal present protagonists who experience ontological insecurity. They discover that their reality is not what it seems. Francis experiences a moment ontological fear as he discovers that the villainous Caligari is actually a respected head of an asylum. Similarly Will experiences a moment of clarity when he finally understands that his psychiatrist and trusted advisor is actually a villainous serial killer. This is a reverse of the Caligari revelation. However, this is not the only element of Caligari that has been directly inverted in Hannibal.



On a deeper level both Will and Francis are characterised by a contradictory presentation in their respective narratives. For Will, his goal of helping in the apprehension of the Chesapeake Ripper is undermined by his ignorance to the fact that he is, actually, being used by the Ripper to divert suspicion. In Savoureux Will finally realises that Hannibal is not what he seems, but instead of being able to use his new clarity to help bring Hannibal to justice, he winds up being arrested and imprisoned for the crimes he knows Hannibal is guilty of. We can correlate this with Caligari, because for the most part, we believe Francis to be an honest and conventional hero, he uncovers the truth and facilitates the restoration of equilibrium as the culprit is incarcerated. However, in the ‘real’ world Francis is revealed to be mad. In this framing narrative strand, the deluded Francis insists that his doctor is actually a monster. The film ends with him being locked up.



Hannibal - Season 1

The final scenes of Caligari and Hannibal Season 1 are almost identical; the protagonist is encaged and their doctors are in attendance. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari places us on the reassuring side of that equation, with the promise of the restoration of equilibrium for the protagonist where it already exists in the wider narrative; the mad man is incarcerated and the good doctor will help him find peace. Hannibal flips this to provide the season 1 finale cliff-hanger; our innocent protagonist is behind bars, whilst the murderer is free and able to take pleasure and pride in his cunning and ability to execute his plans. In the first half of season 2, we find imprisoned Will certain of his psychiatrist’s guilt, but no one believes him. This is comparable to the statements that Francis makes about The Director just before he is restrained. This gives us a final inverse relationship between the two. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari allows us to accept that The Doctor is innocent, whereas we know Hannibal is anything but.


In this exploration of Hannibal through the juxtaposition of the series with of an intriguing and important piece of cinema history, I’ve come to an enhanced understanding of Hannibal. Through considering The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Hannibal side by side, not only is Hannibal’s generic lineage exposed but also its artistic DNA. In his excellent article exploring the context of the German Expressionist movement, David Hudson seeks to explain Expressionism. He does in part this by quoting Art Historian Norbert Lynton: “All human action is expressive; a gesture is an intentionally expressive action. All art is expressive – of its author and of the situation in which he works – but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist.” (x) It’s clear that Hannibal can be defined as Expressionist given this definition. Fuller’s show explores emotions and psychological interactions. Through the use of visual and aural codes and narrative construction, each episode elicits emotional responses from the audience; it cultivates a deeply unsettling tone and moves, disgusts and thrills its audience. More than that, though, its visual style owes more than just a passing nod to the movement of film which established cinematic horror. German blood runs in Hannibal’s veins.


Psychiatrists; Somnambulists: The Influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal” ©meejaleibling, originally posted at The Daily Fandom on July 18, 2014


One comment on ““Psychiatrists; Somnambulists: The Influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari On Brian Fuller’s Hannibal,” by meejaleibling

  1. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2014 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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