Time has stolen most silent-era feature films, and much cinema commentary of the day has vanished with them. Our knowledge of the films, and how viewers of the age received them, often comes from the perspective of hindsight and limited historical accounts. If you’re the kind of person who wants to learn more about Michael Curtiz’s pre-Hollywood science-fiction/horror film Alraune (1918) or is curious about how F.W. Murnau’s Jekyll-and-Hyde variation The Head of Janus played to audiences in 1920, for example, there isn’t much to go on; also, you’re a nerd.
But we are fortunate that a few shining examples of each craft, both then in their infancies, remain. We’re even luckier when the stars align and the fates leave us with a Bizarro World pairing of film and critic.
Carl Sandburg was already an established journalist and poet when he began writing film reviews for the Chicago Daily News in 1920; just a year prior, his poetry collection Cornhuskers earned a Pulitzer Prize. Among the first films this chronicler of American life, this poet of the prairies, championed in his capacity as a critic was the distinctively German nightmare The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
“The craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house,” he rhapsodizes in a 1921 review, which can be found in The Movies Are, a collection of Sandburg’s film criticism. “It looks like a collaboration of Rube Goldberg, Ben Hecht, Charlie Chaplin and Edgar Allan Poe…” In the nearly century since, I’m not sure anyone has offered a more succinct description.
Today embraced as a classic and the quintessential film example of German Expressionism, Caligari seems to have split audiences and critics of the time. Shot in 1919, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opened in Berlin in early 1920, but it didn’t see release beyond German borders until 1921, as other nations and film industries lifted restrictions on the import of German movies following World War I. In the United States and elsewhere, Caligari sparked controversy less for its macabre story than because many opposed the distribution of German films. According to the few lingering accounts of Caligari’s initial reception, filmmakers and film critics were conflicted over the movie’s stagey, stylized sets and use of Expressionist concepts in film.
As others argued over the appropriateness of profiting from German cinema and the appropriation of art techniques intended to express personal ideas and emotions in what was conceived as a commercial film, Sandburg saw a daring work of wonder and dark wit. “Are you tired of the same old things done the same old way?” Sandburg asks in his review, already weary of Hollywood formula less than a full decade into the existence of an American film industry and less than a year into his role as a critic. “Do you wish to see murder and retribution, insanity, somnambulism, grotesque puppetry, scenery solemn and stormy, wild as the wildest melodrama and yet as restrained as comic and well-manipulated marionettes? Then it is you for this Caligari and his cabinet.”
Though Sandburg doesn’t note it in his review, the illustrious writer may have responded in part to the movie’s literary framing device, which was then a novel plot tactic in film. The bookend story was allegedly suggested by Fritz Lang, who considered making Caligari but moved on to direct the likewise influential Destiny, which also employs a framing tale. Caligari was directed by Robert Weine, whose role in the film’s success is probably underappreciated; like Lang, Weine was masterful at moving action and creating depth within the scope of the stationary camera, and he composes visual poetry with the film’s more ballyhooed story and sets.
Caligari begins in an anonymous courtyard, a hospital’s perhaps, where two men sit on a bench. A woman in white (German silent stalwart Lil Dagover) drifts by, specter-like; the younger man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), says she is his fiancée, and his narrative—via flashback—explains her mental state … and where, exactly, they are.
From there, viewers plunge into the past and the mystery surrounding Dr. Caligari (a creepy Werner Krauss), a sideshow charlatan who travels with the supposedly psychic sleepwalker Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Cesare’s prognosticative powers are put to the test at a fair, where Francis’s friend Alan asks the date of his own death. Dawn is the answer, and Alan is indeed dead by daybreak (though not of natural causes). The abduction of Francis’s fiancée follows.
Francis suspects Caligari, but lacks proof to counter Caligari’s alibi. As the stark, sawtooth peaks of the village rooftops loom overhead and cast wild shadows about, Francis pieces together dark truths about Caligari and Cesare. The entire picture comes into view only in the movie’s final moments.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari invites analysis as much as it defies it. Much has been written about its visual aesthetics, its perceived themes of authoritarianism, its influence beyond German cinema and the silent era. As fellow Illinoisan and film critic Roger Ebert observes in his introduction to The Movies Are, “Sandburg takes the view not of a theorist but of a daily newspaperman whose job is to steer readers toward the good movies and away from the bad ones.”
But Sandburg, who was among the earliest to demonstrate that film criticism could at least hint at lyricism, invokes another great poet when he steers readers toward The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: “This is one of the few motion picture productions that might make one say, ‘Here is one Shakespeare would enjoy coming back to have a look at.’”