The Expressionist City

This is a repost from my old blog. Enjoy!

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Elisabeth-Ufer (Berlin), 1912. Woodcut

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Elisabeth-Ufer (Berlin), 1912. Woodcut

I’ve recently finished watching Kino Lorber’s release of the newly restored The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). First of all, the film is so classic I need hardly go into that. Second, the restoration, under the auspices of the F. W. Murnau Stiftung, is terrific. All but the first reel of the original camera negative has survived, and the restoration draws from that; the rest being drawn from the best available prints.

There are many ways I could write about this film, but I have chosen to look at the city and other Expressionist cities. The Kirchner woodcut at top is a good example of the spatial distortion used by German Expressionist artists. The whole world seems wracked by some painful emotion – reflective of the angst that festered in German society, and erupted after the First World War into the turmoil of Weimar Germany. Dr. Caligari was made in the Weimar years, perhaps the only period in modern history when such a thing was possible. The grandiose gestures of silent movie acting (Werner Krauss as Caligari goes from one facial expression to another with the care of a 1930s cartoon character), the benefits of silent film (more is left to the imagination) and a distinctive visual style come together to make everything work.

Notice that I said a distinctive style, not a unique one. Director Robert Weine tried in his next film, Genuine, or the tale of a vampire (1920) to continue his Expressionism. Visually, he succeeded; though the exteriors are more mundane, the interior sets (in part by artist Cesar Klein, who would end up tagged as “degenerate” by the Nazis) are delightfully Caligari-esque. (An example below) But Genuine is too confused in its plotting, a rehash of idea of the vamp – not a blood-sucker, but a woman who drives men to their destruction through their desires.

However, I am writing about cities. Caligari succeeds in that it is all stylized, the buildings bent and sagging, as though the world were dissolving back into primordial chaos. As a result, every set is evocative on its own, and creates an overall mood that even the more ordinary scenes in the film benefit from. A man lights a lamp at twilight:


Now compare that with the Kirchner at top. German Expressionism continued on in cinema for some time, and benefitted the first wave of Hollywood sound horror films in the 1930s. Look at this still from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), which shares several elements with Caligari (my apologies for the small image):


The most completely Expressionist film since Caligari does not come until 1986, in the animated film Krysar (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). Director Jiri Barta had the sets and figures built of wood, which allowed for a visual style that could completely fill the frame. Another rather small example here:


I highly recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its newly restored glory – in fact I recommend all these films, if for no other reason than to look at their visual design. Genuine is probably the least of them, though I have not seen the film in its entirety; no complete print is currently in circulation, though it survives in the archive of the Berlin City Film Museum. Murders in the rue Morgue is stilted and hammy at times, and gives film buffs a sigh of relief that director Robert Florey was given this instead of his original assignment – Frankenstein. Krysar is unique – a dark remake of a children’s story that stands apart from the modern-day dark remake cliche – though be warned, this is probably the only version of The Pied Piper that has a rape scene.

German Expressionist cinema is being celebrated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in their exhibit “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s,” on view until April 26, 2015.


One thought on “The Expressionist City

  1. Pingback: Light and Dark | Art Matters

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