The film tells the story of the deranged
Dr. Caligari and his faithful sleepwalking Cesare and their
connection to a string of murders in a German mountain village,
Holstenwall. Caligari presents one of the earliest examples of
a motion picture "frame story" in which the body of the plot is
presented as a flashback, as told by Francis.
The narrator, Francis, and his friend
Alan visit a carnival in the village where they see Dr.
Caligari and Cesare, whom the doctor is displaying as an attraction.
Caligari brags that Cesare can answer any question he is asked.
When Alan asks Cesare how long he has to live, Cesare tells Alan
that he will die tomorrow at dawn—a prophecy which turns out to be
Francis, along with his girlfriend Jane,
investigate Caligari and Cesare, which eventually leads to Jane's
kidnapping by Cesare. Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, but
the hypnotized slave relents after her beauty captivates him.
He carries Jane out of her house, leading the townsfolk on a lengthy
chase. Francis discovers Caligari is the head of the local
insane asylum, and with the help of his colleagues discovers that he
is obsessed with the story of a previous Dr. Caligari, who
used a somnambulist to murder people as a traveling act.
Cesare falls to his death during the
pursuit and the townsfolk discover that Caligari had created a dummy
of Cesare to distract Francis. After being confronted with the
dead Cesare, Caligari breaks down and reveals his mania and is
imprisoned in his asylum. The influential twist ending reveals
that Francis' flashback is actually his fantasy: the man he claims
is Caligari is indeed his asylum doctor, who, after this revelation
of his patient's delusion, claims to be able to cure him.