Monday, 25 March 2013

German Expressionism: Der Geist Ist Willig...

A key influence on 'The Bone House', both in terms of visual aesthetic and, to a lesser degree, narrative structure is the German Expressionist art movement of the early twentieth century.

I have long harboured a fondness for the look and feel of Expressionist films, in particular those that were produced during the Weimar Republic between the two world wars.  Although much of my initial contact with German Expressionism was via more contemporary works that drew influence from this avant garde movement, tracking backwards to the root of these flavours has been a journey into a world of frighteningly innovative filmmaking.

'Nosferatu' (1922)

I suspect that the first German Expressionist film I saw was F.W. Murnau’s 'Nosferatu' (1922) and although I cannot recall when or where I first watched the film, its imagery remains indelibly etched onto my consciousness.  It may also be the case that some of those images had already silently crept into my head from old film school textbooks, long before I sat down for the full feature; such are the mysterious, almost hypnotic power of them. 

Weird doesn’t even begin to describe it.

There’s much that resonates with me as a creative practionner.  From a production standpoint, the use of design to compensate for technical limitations is wonderful.  As early film cameras did not lend themselves to being moved around, nor did they posses the capabilities that we now take for granted, the shots were mostly static (no pans, tilts, zooms, etc.) Lighting was also underdeveloped as a filmic device.  So directors such as Wiene used impossible angles and geometric shapes in set design, for example, to add greater depth and intrigue to their images.    

Further, the use of high tonal contrast[i] to create high drama in a world devoid of full colour is a useful device to understand and develop.  The influence of Expressionist films on both film noir and the horror genre is due in part to the tension and mystery that such high contrast imagery evokes.  Images begin to breakdown into abstracts, which feel far more suggestive than explicit – rather like watching the shadows cast across the ceiling at night or glancing out of a window at a shape in the darkness that uncomfortably shifts from the benign to the malevolent in the mind’s eye.     

Of course colour can also convey dramatic tension via use of complementary or similarly physiologically charged colour schemes – a splash of red against dark green may conjure immediate thoughts of messy surgery, for example.  However, for me this chromatic friction is far more overt, a direct assault on the viewer rather than the visual enigma of black and white shapes, which leave something else for the viewer to discover deep in their own subconscious long after the film has ended.

'The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari’ (1920)

'The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari’ (1920)

In a similar vein, the use of exaggerated, abstract forms has a particularly unnerving effect.  A world that is simultaneously familiar yet unfamiliar – uncanny and reminiscent of altered mental states through drugs or serious illness.  Wiene's 'The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari’ (1920) is particularly rich in this hallucinogenic design.  Government officials perch on impractically tall chairs, windows stretch away beyond the screen (perhaps forever) and the rooftops dissolve into a simple arrangement of rectangles, suggestive of their real-world counterparts, yet hauntingly divorced from them.  As a child I was hooked on Dr Seuss.   I learnt the poems off by heart and would take a copy of whichever new book my parents had given me everywhere I went.  It was not the crazy storylines, the kooky characters or sublime rhymes that captured me however, but his uniquely disturbing illustrations – that fine line between magic and menace that authors such as Lewis Carroll and filmmakers such as Wiene, Murnau and Lang seem to also instinctively understand.

‘Metropolis’ (1927)

‘The uncanny’ is a recurring aesthetic in my work and I have begun to explore this via animated movement in particular.  In ‘MiLK HaRE’ (2011), the main character’s pixilated motion juxtaposes natural movement with unnaturally static positions to create a disturbing friction between expected and actual motion on screen.  Fritz Lang also explores the uneasiness created between organic and synthetic movement in ‘Metropolis’ (1927).  In a futuristic dystopia, factory workers relinquish normal human movement for a machine-like motion that conveys their symbiosis with an authoritarian industrial environment.  This unanimous, mechanical movement immediately strips away humanity, leaving lifeless automatons to work the machines.

I recently had the real pleasure of watching ‘The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari’ on a cinema screen and with a live musical accompaniment.  Writ large, the film had greater impact and draw as would any other.  However a real surprise was the energy that live music bought to the viewing experience.  At one point, a well timed clash of the cymbals made most of the audience jump and the contemporary sound, while inauthentic in terms of both instrumentation and style, suited the avant garde nature of the film very well.  Although rehearsed in advance, there was an electric immediacy in an art form unfolding in the room alongside these old flickering  pictures that bought a curious necromancy to the proceedings – an unnerving collaboration between artists living and those long since deceased.

Expressionism may have died in Germany during the late 1930’s with the rise of National Socialism, but it continues to haunt our cinema screens and our minds to the current day.

[i] Although many of these films were tinted/colourised, personally this feels like a gimmick (rather as 3D does today.)  My preference is to watch these films in black and white where possible.

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