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What a delight to read your thoughful review of a favorite film, one of the first to hook me on silent cinema. It's interesting to consider the art vs. commercial entertainment debate in light of the fact that after 80 years, I and others find Caligari marvelously entertaining, much more so than many "commercial" films (whether American or European) of the time.

This is your first selection that gives me a clue as to your methodology for assigning films a year. It's surely a crucial part of your project, but one I'd taken for granted until now because I don't have many films' release dates memorized. But when I first saw (and became slightly obsessed with) this film I wanted to get to the bottom of why so many texts and websites refer to it as a 1919 film, and so many others a 1920 film. I learned that it was shot in November 1919 and premiered in February 1920.

Interesting that you bring up Fight Club as Caligari certainly seems to be the granddaddy of the "twist-ending" films that seemed to be en vogue a few years ago (and maybe still are). I've always thought that the main difference between Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky and Alejandro Amenabar's Open Your Eyes was that Crowe's remake removed all the direct references to Caligari out, and replaced them with pop-culture references from his own youth.

Edward Scissorhands is very apt too, and Tim Burton certainly cribbed from the look of this movie a lot, especially in his early films. It's plain as day in everything from Vincent and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp to Beetlejuice and the Nightmare Before Christmas.

I love your definition of expression from Max. It seems very apt, though I haven't seen the film myself. Now I really want to.


Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Brian. I look forward to your responses more each time I post. Let me reply to some of the points you raise.

Art vs. commercial: It was eye-opening to read that 1921 NYT review with the distinctions being made between European and American films. Certainly the great films that we think of from the Weimar period were art informed, but they were in the minority with the majority of films coming out of Germany being more commercial style cinema. Anyhow, I've set up a run of Weimar cinema to watch this week: Asphalt(1929), Diary of a Lost Girl(1929), Deception(1920), The Last Laugh(1924), Warning Shadows(1923), and Pandora's Box (1929) to get a broader handle on the stuff coming out of Germany in this period. I predict that I'll return to this topic in future posts as I ponder it some more.

Hooked you on silent cinema: this was the first time I viewed Caligari and it clicked with me too. So much in fact that I watched it twice! Very entertaining and engrossing flick, as you say. Pretty horrifying as well. I think I was somewhat recently converted to the silents by The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), but this film has assured that I remain hooked too.

Methodology: You caught me—my method of assigning years to movies has slid between year(s) of production and year(s) of release. I doublecheck IMDB and other sources (especially primary sources) to be as accurate as possible, and when I differ with them I try to note how I chose the year/film association in the post.

That big twist: Where would we be without plot twists? Probably sitting in the audience, yawning, and checking the time on our cellphones. Seriously, thanks for bringing up Abre Los Ojos. I didn't think about that connection at all till you wrote about it. The living nightmare of a character named César! I'll have to re-watch it soon and look for more references to Caligari while it's still fresh in my mind.

Edward Scissorhands, et al: As soon as Dr. Caligari shows up at the fairground I was thinking, "hasn't Tim Burton remade this?" Thankfully he hasn't but we must assume he's absorbed the design 'cause its essence seems to flavor some of the memorable moments in his work, as you note.

Max is a slice of alternate history that is worthwhile once you just allow yourself to go along with the premise of Adolf Hitler as a struggling artist who could've channeled all of that angst into his art. It teaches a bit about modern art in Germany without being overbearing, touches slightly on post-WW I economic conditions and the rise of anti-semitism, and it has moments of kitsch too. Where else can you hear a line like, "Hitler, come on, I'll buy you a lemonade!"


Wow. I'm really glad you did Caligari. This was the first film I rented after receiveing '1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die', and I reviewed it myself, and talked to people about how cool and different it was, becasue I hadn't seen a silent film in a decade or more before this one. I also love your article, a nice slant, pardon the pun. Other Expressionist films of influence (that I've seen and hence reviewed) are Waxworks (1924)[garbage] and The Golem (1920) [boring garbage]. I highly reccomend you see my favorite silent, favorite Expressionist and favorite silent director's film, Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924). It's just so grand. TO answer your question however, I think like you do, Artistic and Stylized art doesn't have a nation, is has people, and there's artists and commercial-mongers everywhere.


Thanks, Thom. I can't promise I'll always have something to say about your yearly selections, but I know I'm alreay addicted to reading your informative write-ups! Part of the fun is trying to anticipate what your next selection might be. I have a guess in mind for 1920...

I've seen about half of the titles you list (why no Lang, I wonder?), plus those mentioned by Squish, though I guess I liked them a bit better than he did; although Waxworks is pretty slight it's certainly well-cast, and the rather clunky the Golem still features one of the great examples of Expressionist acting in Paul Wegener's handling of the title role. I do hope you revisit Weimar cinema at least once or twice more in this project, though I wouldn't want you to narrow down from the range of cinema topics you've touched on so far (unless you're really inspired to, of course).

There were rumors of an official Burton remake of Caligari floating around recently, but they seem to have disintegrated.


Brian - How could I overlook Frtiz Lang? Thank you for revealing the oversight. I'll mix M (one of my all time favs) and/or maybe Destiny into the Weimar mix. I like the suggestion to write about another Weimar flick. Maybe it'll be an in-between the regular film/year posts type of thing. Care to share that guess for 1920?

Squish - I'm really glad that you like the post. I just finished watching The Last Laugh and Murnau now ranks among my favorite directors too. Good call. The influence of Expressionism isn't as pronounced as in Caligari (how could it be?) but it's integral to mood and our understanding of the emotinal plight of the Porter — especially in the drunk and loss of dignity scenes. A brilliantly told narrative too with almost no titles! And the camera moves everywhere! I can see why you recommend it so highly, as I do now too.

You guys have strong but somewhat different opinions of The Golem and Waxworks, however I can't join in the discussion since I haven't seen them yet! I'll add those two into the mix as well (this is gonna turn out to be a two-week Weimar-week, I think).


Since you asked, I might as well reveal my guess. I figure it's about time for one of your posts to take on Scandanavian Cinema, and what better way to kick off an investigation of such than Dreyer's delightful film from 1920, the Parson's Widow? It's on DVD and relatively underdiscussed.

If not that, then perhaps a look at early Black Cinema in this country, through Oscar Michaux's Within Our Gates?

Presumably you've already picked something out and can tell me if one of my guesses is correct (or leave me hanging if you prefer).


The Parson's Widow is a good choice, but I went with another film. Interesting that you proposed a film from the Danish cinema 'cause I tried very hard, albeit in vain, to get ahold of Atlantis back when I wrote about 1913. Maybe someday. The film I want to write about for 1920 is connected to Dreyer in a small way though. I haven't had the pleasure of viewing any of Micheaux's work yet. Lying Lips (1939) is the only film he directed that I've been able to reserve so far.


The doctor is in the house! I love seeing your write up on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (A little gossip! A famous experimental filmmaker refers to Anthology Film Archives by this title. Ssshh.)

T., I just want to let you know that I'm taking a rather permanent break from blogging. You have been really supportive in a way that helped me a lot. So I just want to say thank you! My blog will stay up, so please check out my earlier writings, when I was at my very best. :) I'll be checking your writing here too! xo


Say it isn't so, J! Well, if you must take a break from blogging I'm glad that you'll keep Invisible Cinema up so that we can read all of the creative writing you've done there. The film blogosphere just wouldn't be the same without it. I look forward to delving deeper into your work. Here's hoping that you'll still occassionally(?) post images from some of the experimental films you create too. Thank you for being so supportive of this blog over the past six months; It couldn't have progressed the way it has without your thoughtful feedback. I'm gonna miss your unique voice around the blogosphere, J. Best of luck to you in your next creative adventure.


Brian said, "If not that, then perhaps a look at early Black Cinema in this country, through Oscar Michaux's Within Our Gates?"

Mother of God listen to me! Don't watch this ever! I reviewed it and it made my semi-annual top five worst films list. Instead of watching it, read my scathing reviews :P


Sorry Brian...


No need to apologize, Squish, I have no particular stake in the critical reputation of Within Our Gates. From my first, now rather foggy, impression of the film, it's more interesting historically than impressive aesthetically. The reason I guessed/suggested it to Thom is that I get the sense that his site is more about chronicling a history of film through his chronological viewing pattern and his extensive external research, than it is about steering readers to the best films and away from bad ones, which is more the domain of a site like yours. Which is why a film like Within Our Gates, no matter how poorly-made it might be, seems like an appropriate one for him to discuss on his site. No matter, it appears he's chosen something else anyway (and I for one am confident that it will be a fascinating choice).


Squish - Your review of Within Our Gates is scathing yet even in that sardonic write-up you point out some redeeming qualities in the screenplay and nod to the historical importance of the picture. I thought the review was spot-on for the purposes of your blog 'cause it helps us not to expect much of the movie in the way of entertainment. A strong point of view about entertainment value is what I expect when reading the Film Vituperatem.

Brian - Within Our Gates is an appropriate choice for this blog because my objective (though I don't always succeeded) is to pinpoint a crossroads where cinema and history intersect and write about that (the film encourages questions like: Does the portrayal of African Americans differ from portrayals in other films of the same period. Why? What is the social/political context? Did the experience of African American troops returning from WWI inform the screenplay? Who was the target audience? Where was it exhibited? Was it successful? Why? How was it funded and promoted? etc.) You are right on the mark when you write that this blog is not about "steering readers to the best films and away from the bad ones." I sometimes slip into a critque of a film itself, which is okay, but I think other writers in the blogosphere do a much better job of that than I. Rather than review films or only discuss film history I'd rather write about film and history. Its the combination that keeps me interested (one of the things I like most about Hell on Frisco Bay is how your posts combine films with the exhibition experience). Thanks again for all of the suggestions, Brian. Even if I don't write about 'em all here I try to see everything recommended by astute cinephiles like yourself.

Great discussion. It makes me consider what I like most about the film blogosphere. Everyone has his/her own style and angle but we all contribute to one overarching discourse about cinema.


After being blown away by the visual originality and feeling of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I held a Weimar cinema week (okay, it took me two weeks but that doesn't quite have the same ring). I might return to at least one of these films for full research and write-ups on FOTY. In the meantime, here are some one or two sentence initial reactions:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) -Full writeup last week. Sets an Expressionist achievement that is impossible repeat, imho.

The Golem (1920) - Clunky narrative (as Brian and Squish warned) but Paul Wegener emotes the experiences of the titular creature even as Boris Karloff would later in a more famous sympathetic role. This one is worthy of a full historical exploration though because how many other movies give us an excuse to find out more about things like Astaroth and Jewish mysticism?

The Indian Tomb (1921) - Joe May's ambitous production featuring fabulously rich mis-en-scene but its not exactly an Expressionist Raiders of the Lost Ark, unfortunately.

Nosferatu (1922) - Expressionist horror's fascinating take on xenophobia. Max Schrek (did he act in anything else?) looks amazing, like a giant plague-bearing rat.

Warning Shadows (1923) - Uses parallel realities, one told in the light and the other told through shadows, to ask the question: does suspicion of betrayal make one suffer any less than actual betrayal? Yup, just like Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

The Last Laugh (1924) - One of my favs. Social commentary, reminiscient of the sort Griffith is famous for, but the Expressionist images tell the story without a single title card—until Murnau subverts realism for a Hollywood-style ending.

Faust (1926) - The fate of the Earth resting on the worth of one man's soul. Illicit sex, nudity, satanism, drugs, torture, witch-burning, infanticide, and more camera tricks than anything since Melies. I'm still reeling.

Asphalt (1929) - A superb crime/sex/street drama that teasingly starts out like the The Grifters (1990) in 1920s Berlin and ends up laden with melodrama like Mata Hari (1931).

M (1931) - With the National Socialists rising to power in Germany this absorbing picture asks the question: is security worth the loss of liberty? Lang complicates the question by asking the mothers who have lost their children to a serial killer for their opinions.

All told its been one of the most unexpected, satisfying and enjoyable couple of weeks worth of cinema I've had in a long time.


The ending is both the grandaddy of all twists, and the grandaddy of meaning-changing endings imposed by studios. The original idea was a critique of corrupt state systems: the guy in charge is a madman. The new framing story reverses that: the state is a benevolent force disobeyed only by the mad. It's one of the things Sigfried Kracauer points to in From Caligari to Hitler as evidence that German films of the 20s somehow predicted the rise of fascism.

The same thing--an ending imposed by the studio--is the reason for the "subversion" in The Last Laugh. It was supposed to end on a downer, but UFA convinced Murnau to put in that goofy ending, which I actually take as a great play on the film's English title. It's clear that Murnau doesn't believe any of it (an intertitle explains "The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue"), and it seemed to me that he's thumbing his nose at the studio, saying "well, here's your happy ending, I hope you choke on it," thus getting the last laugh. Or maybe that's wishful thinking on my part.

Your focus (which was great, by the way) on the art vs. entertainment debate brings up fascinating counterfactuals: what if audiences really had preferred the "cubist stuff" that the NY Times refers to, and American studios attempted to come up with their own? What would a truly expressionist film by, say, DW Griffith look like? Yikes. Elements turned up, even influenced entire genres (like noir and horror), but they never went whole-hog. The only time I can think of that an American studio really went for it was Night of the Hunter, which flopped.

(I love the Times's "cubist stuff" description because it encapsulates in two words American mistrust of the highbrow.)


Hey Goatdog! Glad you liked the post. I've been immersed in the Weimar era films for the last couple of weeks and it's great to read your thoughts about some of them.

I haven't read Kracauer's book yet but Its on my short-list, and I'll post about it after I've had a chance to digest it. Thank you for reminding me about it.

Your perspective on the English title of Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) is food for thought. I wondered about it when I watched it because the literal translation is "the last man" which I took to mean that a bathroom attendant is the last man that Weimar society might consider (his life and feelings) or would make a film about. Having the last laugh seems like an English idiom so I wonder if the tacked on ending was in the original German release or added for foreign release? With inflation in Germany the real money for film studios was in foreign markets, especially the U.S. Did the studio make Murnau add it to make the film more marketable to American audiences? Regardless, this is one the most beneficial re-titlings of a film for English release 'cause it appears to make more sense than the original title.

I like your imaginary expressionist Hollywood period. I can see DeMille leaving behind his early melodrama movies to create expressionist spectacles like The Strange Sarcophagus of Seti I with Moses encountering twisted dunes and artificial sunlight while persperation drips from his brow in subjective camera as he wanders through a painted canvas desert. Actually, I want to see that film now...lol.


The new ending was definitely for the German market too. But the issue of the title is really murky. Kracauer says UFA wanted to change the title to The Last Laugh, but Murnau successfully resisted. However, the book doesn't indicate whether it would have been a direct translation of the English idiom to, say, Die Letzte Lache in German, which wouldn't mean the same thing as the English did, at least according to my German-speaking colleague. I wish I had a German edition of the book to see what was actually proposed; alternatively, I wish I could find someone to corroborate Kracauer's story.

I really want to see your fantasy DeMille film, too.


Ack! It appears that I conflated info from several sources. I shouldn't comment without having my references handy. Kracauer sees the happy ending as a satire on American happy endings and a commentary on the increasing American involvement in German Film. He doesn't talk about the title. Herbert Luft, in "Carl Mayer, Screen Author" (Cinema Journal 8(1), Autumn 1968) says that producer Erich Pommer forced the ending on the film in order to appeal to American audiences. The business about the studio also wanting a title change was from an unsubstantiated IMDB comment. I guess the lesson we learn here is that goatdog is easily confused.


Hey, don't be too hard on yourself, GD; that's some great detective work you just pulled off. I appreciate you taking the time to cite sources too because that's the only way we can sift through the years of rumors and, as you succinctly put it, "unsubstantiated comments" that threaten to make reliance on the open source encyclopedias problematic. Well done.

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