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Granddaddies of horror, noir and Disney movies explored as works of Expressionist art

by Jerry Gorin | Off-Ramp®

Lobby Card from the 1920 film 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' as doctors examine his somnambulist, Cesare. This is the only card with Caligari and Cesar together. Goldwyn Distributing Company (US) (Heritage Art Gallery), via Wikimedia Commons

Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are two of the most iconic silent films of all time. Metropolis has influenced the entire cannon of science fiction, while Dr. Caligari's influence can be seen in everything from film noir to horror to Disney. The two films are also paragons of German Expressionist filmmaking, a movement that is perhaps more closely related to the visual arts than any other in cinema history.

Expressionism is a loaded word. It first described early modernist painting by artists interested in primitive, abstract art. It then described an avant-garde movement in classical music. But around the First World War, Expressionism became attached to a period of stark and brutal printmaking. Those high-contrast, black and white images made a huge influence on Germany's filmmakers between the wars.

Britt Salvesen, head of LACMA's prints, drawings and photographs department, and Timothy Benson, curator of LACMA's Robert Rifkind Center for German Expressionist studies, have collaborated on a new exhibit highlighting Metropolis and Dr. Caligari. As part of LACMA's push to include film in its program, the two are excited to situate the films among their vast collection of German Expressionist art. Off-Ramp reporter Jerry Gorin spoke with the two of them ahead of the opening.

Why did Expressionist filmmaking arise in Germany?

Salvesen: Within the international cinema industry, there was a wish to develop distinctive styles. German expressionist styles built upon visual styles, printmaking, and it was carried over into films which could then be branded as German and Expressionist.

What is about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Why does it so perfectly embody the Expressionist aesthetic?

Benson: It's really the atmosphere created, it's almost like being inside an Expressionist painting. Wilhem Warm did these wonderful sets. You see these light and dark shadows, it's very dramatic, and the acting is like dancing - it's more like dancing than talking. You see wonderful interplay between acting and stage sets.

Salvesen: Dr. Caligari really creates its own universe. Somehow it's on the border between dream and reality. It's a story within a story - one of the first films to do that - opening with a character telling story to another character. So from the beginning you are wondering who has access to truth, who's living in a dream, and who is sane or insane. It's a hallucinatory scenario. This related to certain subject matters and pre-occupations that had already appeared in artwork.

What was German cinema like up to that point?

Benson: I'd say it was much more naturalistic. Much more like in American cinema. This is exactly what German Expressionism, if you want a definition, is breaking away from. The idea of putting a camera in front of a stage as if it were a play is abandoned for a more active camera and more active actors. One of the terms they had for this kind of drama was "Scream" drama - inspired by Edward Munch's "The Scream" - where instead of normal conversations, everything is extraordinary.

Salvesen: The contrast between Expressionist acting styles and visual aesthetics was Extreme! You went into these abstract sets, where spaces seemed tilted, or cramped. They didn't feel like real rooms. Actors took on very exaggerated facial expressions and gestures - all very distinctive to this movement.

Where do you find the influence of German Expressionism on subsequent genres?

Salvesen: I first started to think about the influence on today's filmmakers when last year I coordinated the Tim Burton exhibition. I worked with him on selecting art from the museum's collection that appealed to him, several of which were German Expressionist prints. I started to see those connections, with him specifically, but also with the broader genres.

Benson: Film noir to me is the most deeply connected. In Film Noir, the atmosphere is just as important as the characters - in fact, acts as a character.

Set design as a character?

Benson: I think so. They become important to the emotional atmosphere.

Masterworks of German Expressionist Cinema runs through March 2013 in the Ahmanson Building at the LA County Museum of Art. The museum will also be screening both films in October, which will include a showing of Dr. Caligari with live musical accompaniment from Robert Israel.

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