Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, described by film critic Roger Ebert as the “first true horror film,” still wows audiences more than 100 years after creation due to its high artistic values and nightmarish, foreboding atmosphere. Reflecting as well as foreshadowing political events in Europe at the time, the story of its first release in Los Angeles in May 1921 also mirrors our current political environment.
Released in Germany to huge acclaim in 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari popularized the Expressionist Style of filmmaking through its otherworldly depiction of the depraved psyche and nightmarish anxiety of its lead character. An offshoot of the revolutionary early twentieth century art form cubism, which embraced an abstracted and multidimensional presentation of reality, Expressionism symbolically explored the madness and nightmarish qualities of an anxiety-filled, suspicious culture.
Germany as well as Europe still found themselves enmeshed in dark and despairing times after the hysteria and destruction of World War I. Maimed and wounded veterans haunted German streets while average citizens scrounged for food dealing with hyperinflation and high unemployment from burdensome war reparations. Though the end of the war led to democratic reform and the end of the Kaiser, many began resenting that the German left surrendered when no foreign troops entered German land. Fear of Communists and the rise of the radical right led to distrust in democratic forms of government and growing support for authoritarian leaders.
After rapturous reviews and long runs in Europe, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari took the United States by storm in early 1921 at a time when American film distributors began loosening restrictions on German film importation. The Goldwyn Distributing Company acquired it for U.S. release, premiering in at New York City’s Capitol Theatre April 3, 1921, to record breaking crowds. The film told the story of Dr. Caligari, an evil genius who visits a country fair to demonstrate the speaking skills of his patient Cesare when awakened from a deep sleep. While in town, a series of murders occur, leading to an investigation of both the doctor and patient, before a twist occurs.
American critics raved over the film, with Motion Picture magazine calling it “an fantastic story of murder and madness, reminding you of Edgar Allan Poe’s works.” The New York Herald declared, “Will give any one a first-class, guaranteed case of the creeps. It is celluloid delirium tremens.” The New York American wrote, “It has a cunning intelligence, a cleverness and a subtle humor that makes one wish it might have been an American director who conceived it. It is of a sort to make our film industry perk up and get a-going.” Many called it a masterpiece, bringing fresh techniques to the screen and abandoning old tropes. Some even praised it for its dynamic look, almost three dimensional, as art critic Williard Huntington Wright in Photoplay proclaimed “unlike other motion pictures, (it) was not merely a flat performance on a two-dimensional screen.”
Crowds rushed to see the film, falling spellbound from its impressionable telling. Audiences in major cities and even entertainment industry professionals on the East Coast saluted the movie’s excellent acting and high production values.
Days before the opening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Los Angeles, Fred Miller, owner and operator of downtown’s Miller’s Theater, took out advertisements in local newspapers promoting the upcoming screenings. As the May 4 ad in the Los Angeles Evening Express stated about the film, “It is the first radical departure in motion picture production. I feel safe in saying that it will create a sensation in Los Angeles.”
Filmgoers arriving for screenings that day found angry protesters picketing and lining the street, some in military uniform, jeering them for wanting to attend a German film. Members of the American Legion Hollywood Post, many moving picture industry employees and some paid by film unions to picket, “formed a circle and marched past the box-office for hours for the purpose of inducing patrons from purchasing tickets for the performance. Those who bought tickets despite the demonstration were hissed and hooted, and several fights ensued,” as Motion Picture News reported. Rioters attempted to break through police before throwing eggs, violence their only answer to something they opposed.
Some called it propaganda, others resentfully claimed its cheap cost would lead to the loss of American jobs. At the same time, these people had no problem with the American film industry dominating the theaters of European countries with its own films, affecting workers just like themselves. Legion members also members of Equity and the Motion Picture Directors’ Association claimed they would carry protests against German-made films across the country. Venice, California, did pass an ordinance imposing a $500 license per night to show any German or Austrian film.
After the second screening that night, Miller replaced the film with the American-made film, The Money Changers. While opponents decried the screening of Dr. Caligari in Los Angeles, they protested no other German films playing in town, which many both in Los Angeles and across the country found suspicious. As Adele Whitely Fletcher in Motion Picture magazine wrote, “It is the inferior American producer who fears this excellence, who is probably indirectly responsible for the present hullabaloo. The better producers – and they are in the great majority – have welcomed the imported film, accepted it, and studied it.” Herbert Howe in Picture Play wrote, “some of us resent seeing maimed war veterans used to boycott a German film at the instigation of a crowd of disgruntled film workers who, knowing they are incompetent and overpaid, are terrorized by the success of such pictures as Passion and Deception.
Novelist Upton Sinclair took note of the protests, capturing both its political and economic aspects in the novella They Call Me Carpenter: Tale of the Second Coming in 1922. The lead protagonist and his friend, German professor Dr. Henner, visit Western City’s Excelsior Theatre to see the film on Henner’s recommendation. Protesting crowds mostly wearing military uniforms greet them, verbally attacking patrons attempting to enter the theater. Dr. Henner retreats, but the lead asks a bystander why crowds are denouncing the film to be told, “Because it’s Hun propaganda.” Pushing past the crowds to purchase a ticket, he inquires if the picture is propaganda to the doorman who answers that no, it’s not. “They say they won’t let us show German pictures, because they’re so much cheaper; they’ll put American-made pictures out of business and it’s unfair competition.” Attacked after leaving the theater for watching the German film, the main character ends up taking refuge in a church where he is calmed by a stranger who says, “A mob is a blind thing, worse than madness. It is the beast in man running away with his master.” And as it turns out, the mob was paid by the Motion Picture Directors’ Association to protest.
Motion Picture magazine denounced the Los Angeles’ protest and its knee jerk reactions in a August editorial. “We dislike to note a tendency in certain quarters to ban foreign-made motion pictures…We know of nothing more un-American or injurious to the advancement of the photoplay…Frankly we suspect that certain motion picture men would gladly eliminate such keen competition…Let us study the products of Europe, and profit thereby. Above all, let us not be provincial. Let us keep an open door to the photo-drama of any land.”
Some in the film industry pushed for tariffs on pictures from Germany as retaliation for them restricting the screening of American films. The New York Globe deplored this suggestion in an editorial, calling it a “tariff on intelligence..and that any effort to protect the American motion picture industry against European pictures of such artistic merit is an effort to keep ‘Los Angeles unintelligent and inartistic.’”
Protesters’ arguments for banning the film echoed many other protests around the state of California decrying Japanese Americans for supposedly taking white jobs and denigrating other races for being assertive and asking for more rights. After suffering through a pandemic and then a Depression from 1920-1921 after the conclusion of World War I, many Americans took out their fiscal and emotional frustrations on other races and ethnicities for upheaval and loss of work instead of industrialists and financiers who laid off workers to reap profits. In 1924, the Exclusion Act against Chinese Americans was amended due to rising anti-Japanese hysteria. taking away rights and citizenship for Japanese Americans. Nationalism gained traction with right-wing supporters, leading to increased racism and antisemitism, along with redlining or the addition of covenants to prevent people from color purchasing property in upscale neighborhoods.
Just six months later, Miller once again decided to exhibit The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, believing Los Angeles would now appreciate seeing the film. especially after many requested it. He was right. Such huge crowds attended screenings that he extended the film’s run to an indefinite engagement extending weeks. Opening night broke all attendance records for the theater.
While for a short while, Los Angeles residents and Americans maintained a quiet society equilibrium, over the next decade, bigotry, hatred, and animosity towards liberal democracy swelled and support for fascism grew. May some type of intervention prevent a growing return to these dark and turbulent times as many events now mirror those of one hundred years ago.