Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Guest Post: The Power & Influence of German Expressionism (by Paul Jensen)

Silent Cinema was a film renaissance, and amongst those leading the pack was the German Expressionist movement starting in 1920.  

Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is widely regarded as one of the first Expressionistic films.  The film’s radical approach presented a world supremely surreal, abstract and distorted.  The set design, actors’ make-up and gestures were all exaggerated, and while the Lumiere Bros captured life “as is, the Germans presented it as highly stylized.  

If that wasn’t innovative enough, at the end of the film, form compliments content with the revelation that the narrator of the film (Caligari) is in fact in an insane asylum, so it is only natural for the world to appear distorted to him.  Therefore, the look of the film - its point of view - had a reason to exist the way it does: it was part of the story.  Thus, not only is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first expressionistic film, it has also etched its way into history as the first horror film.

Much like the similar revolution in painting from classical to abstract, the success of the German Expressionist movement suddenly freed up the potential of cinema as artists realized they could portray the world in any stylized way they wanted, rather than purely classical or even impressionistic approaches.   

Quite often expressionist films have a surreal or nightmarish quality about them which leaves many viewers feeling unsettled.  Carl Dryer’s Vampyr (1932) is a perfect example of this, asking a great deal of its audience by drawing us out of our comfort zones in order to appreciate the film for what it is. 

It’s interesting that even though moviegoers are savvier than ever, most of us are still unable or unwilling to accept a film that challenges the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking.  Many viewers prefer to take movies as a direct reflection of a life they can escape into rather than an artistic representation of what life is.  Teeming with ambiguity, expressionistic films are not for the passive watcher; they ask for an engaged audience to meet them half-way.  The objective here is not to search for a perfect open-and-shut answer. After all, that’s not actually the way life usually works. 

Through Expressionism, however, the Germans stumbled upon a style that has conquered time.  This is a bold statement, I know, but perhaps one I can explain best by giving an example from horror movies.  Starting in the early 1930’s the horror genre began to take off in Hollywood, yet if these releases are watched today, they feel dated and certainly aren’t as scary as they must have been back in the day.   

Now compare German Expressionistic horror films. Vampyr is, once again, a perfect example.  This film still has the power to unsettle an audience and instill within us an eerie feeling of foreboding.  The hallucinatory visuals and performances slither into the portion of our minds where nightmares are made.  They could never be ‘real’, which is precisely what makes them ‘believable’.  This is what manages to slip into our consciousness and disturb us. 

While the Germans were experimenting with Expressionism, further east the Russians were establishing their own movement.  The Soviet Montage theory revolutionized cinema in the realm of film editing.  Sergei Eisenstein exposed audiences to a level of violence never before seen on screen in the famous Odessa steps sequence of his film Battleship Potemkin (1925).  In the scene, he cuts back and forth to a frantic mother who has lost her grip on her baby carriage in the middle of a murderous revolutionary mayhem before watching in horror as the carriage plummets down the stairs.  Many movies have since payed homage to this moment, from The Untouchables (1987) to Brazil (1985).  At the time of its release, this scene would have made as big of an impact on audiences as the opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998. 

Also toying with Soviet Montage was Dziga Vertov whose 1929 silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera captured an average day in the cities of Odessa, Kharkiv and Kiev in the Ukraine.  Vertov’s experimental film featured no story and no actors. Instead he captured images of Soviet citizens going about their business from dawn till dusk.  More recently, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqattsi (1982) and Ron Frike’s Baraka (1992) attempt to capture the same sort of thing: life as it is.  Films like these save a snippet of life as it was in their time, a priceless treasure for generations to come.  They are able to encapsulate our entire humanity and allow us to step back and observe ourselves and our societies.

Silent films may not be for everyone, but for those with a desire to explore them, they are certainly worth the time.  It can even be argued that they are the purest form of visual storytelling.  Either way, they are borne out of a love for storytelling. A lack of language allowed the same story to resonate across the globe in a way that united people under a universal Jungian collective unconscious.  Sight and Sound Magazine - one of the world’s most respected cinephile magazines - releases a poll of the world’s greatest films every 10 years in which, inevitably, several silent films (F.W. Murnua’s Sunrise for example) make the cut. 

Looking at it another way, if the Medieval period in classical music were compared ‘still images’, then the Baroque period would be akin to silent cinema.  Whether we’re listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Handel’s Water Music, it is still able to touch us and connect with our souls even though the Renaissance, Classical, Romantic and Modern period were all yet to come.  The same goes for film: you might say, the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s would all bring something new and exciting with the 70’s and beyond serving as the cinematic equivalent of post-modernism. 

If we think about it, it is absolutely astonishing how quickly cinema would evolve and how sophisticated it would become in just over a century of artistic experimentation.  It is undoubtedly, the most successful art form for the 20th century, but all its advances do not erase the influence brought out by its mother, silent cinema. 

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