The Conrad Veidt Society

The influence of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari“ on Upton Sinclair's “They Call Me Carpenter”.

by Paula Vitaris

In ''The Monster Show,'' David J. Skal's cultural history of the horror film, the author briefly mentions in his chapter on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a novel by Upton Sinclair, ''They Call Me Carpenter,'' which describes the tumultuous events brought on by a screening of the controversial film.

The novel itself takes place in a thinly-disguised Los Angeles (here called by the generic name of 'Western City') and begins with its first-person narrator, an idle, wealthy young ''club man'' named Billy, on his way to a showing at the Excelsior Theatre of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He is accompanied by a friend, a German scholar named Dr. Henner. They find a mob of ex-soldiers in uniforms assembled in front of the theater, protesting the film. The ex-soldiers proclaim that the movie is ''Hun propaganda'' and they ''ain't going to allow it!'' (The truth is that the mob has been paid by the studios to create excitement and drum up business). Dr. Henner, fearful because he is German, decides not to confront the mob (he's already seen the film anyway) and withdraws, but Billy is determined to see it and pushes his way through. When he comes out after the show, the mob is still there and this time he is beaten, receiving a blow to the head. He stumbles into a nearby church and loses consciousness. When he awakens, he finds a man standing over him. It is the Christ of the church's stained glass window, who has decided to come down from the window and see what mankind has been up to these past 1,921 years. He heals Billy's battered jaw and, with Billy on his heels, heads out onto the streets.

Carpenter's (as Christ is called throughout) initial encounters are with Billy's friends in the movie industry, including vamp star Mary Magna -- the part she plays in this story is not hard to guess. The juxtaposition of the righteous, pure Carpenter with this spoiled, cynical bunch makes for some amusing and scathing satire on the silent film community. But Carpenter soon abandons that world in order to mix with the city's poor and working class: the waiters who work in the fancy restaurants, the extras who get paid virtually nothing, the tailors who make the movie costumes and the wealthy's elaborate clothing. This being an Upton Sinclair novel, the satirical elements eventually fall away and the novel becomes more of a social justice tract, with Carpenter quickly becoming the voice of Western City's fledgling labor movement. But the novel is more than that; it is also a reenactment of the Passion Week, albeit a Passion Week with a different ending -- a far more despairing one -- than in the Bible.

The fictional riot in ''They Call Me Carpenter'' caused by the showing of Caligari, WAS, according to Skal, inspired by an actual event. More than 2,000 people -- many of them members of the American Legion -- marched on Miller's Theater in Los Angeles on May 15, 1921 to protest a showing of the film. According to David Robinson in his BFI Film Classics Series monograph on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the demonstration was caused not by aesthetic objections to the film or any particular anti-German sentiment. Instead, Robinson says, the demonstration was organized by the Hollywood branch of the American Legion to protest the ''spectre of mass unemployment as a result of a (wholly imaginary) imminent flood of German films into America.'' The demonstration turned violent and Miller's withdrew Caligari the next day, substituting an American film, The Money Changers, based, ironically, on an novel by Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair's use of Caligari is not arbitrary, however, as its storyline echoes throughout ''They Call Me Carpenter,'' which recasts Dr. Caligari and Cesare into aggregate creations that serve to illustrate Sinclair's overriding social concerns about class exploitation. Caligari becomes the wealthy capitalists -- movie producers and studio heads, upscale versions of Caligari's carnival huckster, who lure and gull the public with their special attractions much as Caligari lures the public in to see his fortune-telling somnambulist. Cesare is represented by the mob of former soldiers who are willing, if unwitting tools, of the capitalist moviemakers and their equally reactionary business associates. The soldiers are used to destroy troublemakers who decry the suffering among the working class and the poor caused by the gross inequities of the free-market economy. Socialists, communists, ''Huns,'' oppositionists of any stripe, ''radicals'' like Carpenter, are all fair game for the rampaging soldiers, who even indulge in the ultimate repression of expression, a book-burning. As Carpenter observes, "You have trained your young men to be killers of their brothers, and now they know only the law of madness.''

Sinclair could not have known that Hans Janowitz, one of the screenwriters of Caligari, had been a soldier in World War I and (with co-writer Carl Mayer) conceived Cesare to represent the young men who blindly follow orders, march off to war and kill their fellow human beings -- but Janowitz' viewpoint is certainly reflected in ''They Call Me Carpenter,'' with its ex-soldiers manipulated by the capitalists, usually through the media (particularly a newspaper called 'The Examiner,' obviously a stand-in for the Hearst newspapers). A faceless mob, however, is not as effective a vehicle as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's somnambulist for conveying the idea that violence is really not random but controlled by unseen forces. The plight of Cesare, helpless to resist the order to murder, is infinitely more horrific and gripping than the actions of an anonymous mob.

The novel also shares a similar narrative structure with the film; although not the ravings of a madman, as Caligari turns out to be, the events of ''They Call Me Carpenter'' are revealed to be a dream. Wounded Billy, the stand-in for mental patient Francis of Caligari (he also serves as an amalgamation of Caligari and Cesare, since he is a veteran whose wealth makes him one of the superior classes) wakes up at the end to find he is still in the church -- the church from which Carpenter was ejected. His head still hurts, and only a short time has passed since he was pummeled by the mob. The extraordinary events of the past week were only a delusion brought on by his injuries. He leaves the church and immediately meets Mary Magna, once again her overdressed, overly made-up, chattering self; she has not been transformed into the scrubbed down Magdalene she had become in Billy's dream. If Caligari ends with an insane Francis trapped in the asylum, Billy finds he is still trapped in his useless life with his showbiz friends. It is not too farfetched to equate Hollywood and the movie industry with Caligari's mental hospital and its mad patients, although the stories Hollywood manufactures reach a much larger audience than the stories conjured up by Francis and his fellow inmates. The movie moguls are hardly different than the kind/patronizing/sinister Dr. Caligari who claims to know now how to treat his patient.)

Carpenter has no direct parallel in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Instead, he functions to point out the inherent contradiction between Christianity as preached by Christ and as practiced by the wealthy. His speeches imploring compassion, justice, mercy and sharing of wealth are interpreted by the mob and its masters as "Red" propaganda, although they're all taken directly from the Bible. (Sinclair updates the Biblical passages to formal modern-day American English.) No doubt the conservative critics of Sinclair's day must have been quite indignant over his view of Christ as the ''first socialist,'' as well as his caustic portrait of organized religion (when Carpenter interrupts a service at one of the wealthiest churches in the city, he is grabbed by a young minister, an exponent of what Billy ironically calls ''muscular Christianity,'' and forcibly escorted out of the building).

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