a zoo in hell


7 Scary Things #5 - German Expressionism

A few weeks ago I was at a local art exhibit about the 1980s. Wandering through that exhibit, I found something alienating in between the art and photos sealed behind reflective glass. Much of my formative years were spent in the late eighties and into the nineties, and I found my personal experiences and interpretations at odds with some of the statements made on the tourist placards next to the art. They seemed like they were written by an archaeologist many years after the event, with no real experience of it to speak of.

That, of course, is the problem with any sort of art movement or creative trend. Even before the last sparks of inspiration have flitted away, it is being classified, commodified, and understood by critics who like to do this sort of thing. This criticism is often close to the truth of a scene, but there are as many truths as there are players. Each viewer brings another possible meaning to the mix.

So, in the wake of WWI, Germany reeled from the losses of the war, both material and psychological, there was a storm of roaring decadence as the nation struggled with the liberal expanses of the Weimer Republic. Culture was booming, parties were happening, and the German film industry was getting noticed despite the prejudices of former enemies. By all reports, it was a heady, strangely exuberant time.

Yet, look at the movies that made the mark on the international film scene.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,    The Golem, and Nosferatu all share the unsettling contrast and bent lines which is the style of expressionist film. These are just surface artifacts, though, these are the artistic means to the end. For all the critical dancing around what these patterns of light and dark mean, it doesn't take a master's degree to feel and understand the conflict and disordered world which is presented on these screens. These films were high contrast by choice, the sets were warped by design and the looming shadows were not accidents of composition. These artists were seeing something, and whether or not they understood it, the tableaus from their films were certainly not drawn from the natural world around them, but they were true to another vision.

The nacht shadow from a short man was beginning to fall all around them, growing longer and longer, until total darkness killed the stubborn and hard lights of their cinema.