Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, German Expressionism, and the Breakdown of Form

Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking Sandman series and Robert Weine’s equally groundbreaking 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are strikingly similar in one fundamental way – they luxuriate in the breakdown of form.

Yet despite both unleashing the imagination in surreal and arresting ways, they have opposite effects. Reading Sandman is exhilarating, joyous, and liberating; watching Dr. Caligari is unquestionably an eerie, disturbing, and suffocating experience.

But why?

Before answering this question, I’d like to tell you what this blog post was supposed to be about – Gaiman’s graphic novel, Sandman: Overture. I tore through the book, like I suspect many others did. It makes sense, given that for fans of the original Sandman series, this prequel (originally known as Sandman 0) was published over twenty years after the series ended. And unlike most prequels, it made sense to tell this story because the very first issue of Sandman opens with a mystery.

Briefly, Sandman is about one of the Endless, called Dream, who is lord of all dreams and lives in the aptly named Dreaming. The series, which included over 70 issues and was collected in ten volumes, tells of Dream’s various travels and adventures, which include Norse deities, the Fates, William Shakespeare, and even Lucifer, to name a paltry few. Then there are the characters unique to the Sandman universe, like the memorably disquieting creature called the Corinthian.  And, of course, there are Dream’s siblings – Delirium, Destiny, Despair, Destruction, Desire, and – most famously – his upbeat sister, Death.

It’s pointless to try and summarize the series because the seventy-plus issues feature a variety of interconnected subplots, some of which are confined to a few issues, others which span from beginning to end.

But I will note that the very first issue opens with a second-rate sorcerer (I read them all seven years ago, so sorry if the details are a little off), capturing Dream. The reason he’s able to capture this immensely powerful being, we discover, is because something happened that left Dream weak, almost to the point of death.

What was it that happened? Fans have been wondering for decades.

So, apparently, has Neil Gaiman.

That’s why I said it makes sense to tell this story, or at least it’s justified – there was a clear question left to answer. Yet I’ll admit I was deeply worried that Overture would be a let-down. Look at the Alien movie franchise. Prometheus ostensibly wanted to answer the question, “Who was the space jockey in the original, and what happened?” Putting aside that Prometheus impressively managed to answer neither question, the whole reason that scene from the original was so powerful was that we didn’t know. It was that unknown element, just like with the aliens themselves, that made the film so fascinating and terrifying. When it comes to sci-fi and fantasy, questions typically are best left unanswered.

You can appreciate, then, why I had my doubts about Overture, especially given that this series more or less about the imagination was going to try and answer a question that had been left to our imaginations.

Of course, it was great and, in retrospect, I feel a bit foolish doubting that Neil Gaiman could write a good story.

Now, there’s a lot I could say about Overture, and Sandman as a whole, but the truth is that so much has already been said – and I by no means consider myself an expert on graphic novels – that I don’t feel I have much to contribute in that regard.

However, I couldn’t help notice similarities between the art style of Overture and a film I saw recently, Dr. Caligari.

And I certainly have something to say about that.

Like Sandman, it’s best to go into Dr. Caligari knowing little to nothing. If you need motivation, consider that many, including Roger Ebert, have called it the first horror movie, it is exemplary of German Expressionism, which had a major impact on world cinema, and – in the end – it’s just a great story, almost Kafka-esque at times. And that’s not even going into the intriguing political dimension of the film and its impact.

What makes the film most memorable is it’s art style, which is unlike anything I have ever seen before (except, maybe, in Sandman). I mentioned Kafka just now, but Dr. Caligari is entirely its own creature. The closest parallel I can think of to it’s warped, bizarre sets would be Picasso’s paintings. So just imagine if Picasso was tasked with making some movie sets and the result might look like this:


This is one of the more realistic shots in the film.

So what makes the film so profoundly claustrophobic? One obvious answer is that most of the film takes place in narrow alleys or confined spaces that seem to press in on the actors. You always feel as if the universe was shrinking, the Big Bang in reverse. But I think the answer has to do with something deeper than any surface details, like the slanted windows and trapezoidal doorways.

I think the answer is Dr. Caligari presents a world gone wrong.

It is recognizably our world, just like – to bring up Kafka for the final time – the worlds of The Trail and The Castle are recognizable. In the image above, it’s clearly a picture of a town square (or town dodecagon?), much like Picasso’s painting of a guitar is clearly a guitar.

But the distortions undermine our sense of reality. We know it’s our reality, yet it isn’t conforming with the rules of that reality, and that disjunction makes for an endless uneasiness.

Gaiman’s Sandman series also revels in taking the familiar and warping it into new patterns, new shapes, and things with no names. Fittingly enough, many images in the series have the quality of a dream – a world that is not quite right.

That might sound like another way of saying a world gone wrong, as I just called the world of Dr. Caligari, but there is a crucial distinction – the reality of Sandman is not our reality. Yes, there are times when the story takes place in the real world. Many times, in fact. But the truly weird images and scenes, they take place in the Dreaming, a City of Stars, Hell, or in between, or outside, or beneath (who knows) space, where Dream’s father, Father Time, exists.

When we enter these worlds that are beyond our own, we expect the rules of these realities to be different from the rules of our own. We want new rules or, better yet, a ubiquitous fluidity that makes the entire concept of rules seem laughable. In such a reality, any moment can bring a surprise, because in such a reality, there is no normal to go by.

So what accounts for the thrill of Sandman and the constricting tension of Dr. Caligari? I believe it comes down to this simple difference – Dr. Caligari‘s world is enough like our own that its oddities and surprises feel like aberrations, even violations, whereas Sandman‘s world is essentially the imagination itself, and in the imagination, where the concept of aberrations or violations  simply don’t make sense.

I want to stress, however, that neither experience is better than the other. Indeed, they are fun compliments and invite reflection on how we perceive and express what lies at the edges of our imagination and beyond. The uniqueness of both pieces of art are also likely to expand the boundaries of your own imagination. And finally, both are glimpses into worlds like, yet unlike, our own, and stepping into other realities is one of the greatest pleasures any work of art can offer.

So go read it (Sandman). Now.

…And go watch it (Dr. Caligari). Now.


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