Tim Burton's Ancestors: LACMA Spotlights the Bizarre Visions of German Expressionism

Hermann Warm's work for The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariEXPAND
Hermann Warm's work for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Collection Cinémathèque française, Paris

Matchstick trees jut upward like gnarled pitchforks. Jagged explosions of sunlight splash across zigzagging streets. Stretched buildings and contorted rooms evoke the violent projections of wounded minds within.

Such expressionist visions materialized in the cinema of Germany following the horrors of World War I, and probe long fingers through the history of film, from the angular shadows and exaggerated pyschodramas of film noir and horror movies to the cartoon nightmares of Tim Burton's entire career.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Expressionism may be the film style most closely related to painting, so LACMA's new major film exhibit (through April 26) devoted to German expressionism of the 1920s is an especially fascinating survey of the production art, sketches and set designs behind such classic films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1927).

Though the era's directors, including F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, have been justly lauded, their crucial art directors and illustrators — such as Hermann Warm (who also worked notably with Carl Theodor Dreyer), Walter Röhrig and Walter Reimann — are less well known.

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This exhibition, largely imported from the Cinémathèque Française and having its U.S. debut at LACMA, casts a rare light on their work.

Warm, Röhrig and Reimann created the set designs for Caligari, whose abstracted world was carefully reproduced in its physical sets. The film became an international sensation and established a market for expressionism's turbulent visions, conceived by key production artists before the cameras ever rolled. André Andrejew's striking ink-wash drawings for Raskolnikov (1923, an adaptation of Crime and Punishment) for Caligari director Robert Wiene prescribed much of the anguished beauty of this neglected masterpiece. Ernst Stern's lavish gouache costume designs enliven art director–turned–film director Paul Leni's charcoal plans for his mythologized Baghdad in Waxworks (1924).

Otto Erdmann's work for The Joyless Street (1925)EXPAND
Otto Erdmann's work for The Joyless Street (1925)
Collection Cinémathèque française, Paris

Robert Herlth's pastel, aerial sketches beautifully establish the shadowy phantasmagoria of Faust (1926), and his large schematic for The Last Laugh conveys the complexity of a forced-perspective set that combines live-action, scenery and miniatures. Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut render the atmosphere and intricacy of epic constructions (not to mention a life-sized dragon prop) for Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis.

Emil Hasler's dark cityscapes for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932) establish a tone mimicked in countless movies since, and his elaborate panoramic visualization of an angry mob in the subterranean kangaroo court of M (1931) is a model of menace.

Robert Herlth's sketch for Faust (1926)EXPAND
Robert Herlth's sketch for Faust (1926)
Collection Cinémathèque française, Paris

The exhibit devotes two sections to major expressionist motifs. The first is for the visions of the Weimar Republic's cold, cobblestoned streets in The Blue Angel (1930) and the films of G.W. Pabst, such as The Joyless Street (1925), Pandora's Box (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1931).

The other is for the recurring motif of staircases (one of the many expressionist hallmarks later borrowed by director Alfred Hitchcock).

The art is displayed on an off-white exhibit floor that slopes upward, creating three dark tunnels — two of which contain digital screens playing clips from the films — and form a base for triangular columns and cylinders, which vaguely suggest the iconic smokestacks of Caligari. If you aren't careful, you might find yourself standing as off-kilter as the many canted angles seen in these films. (A back room devoted to experimental works by the fascinating contemporary Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin seems like an afterthought.)

Erich Kettelhut for Metropolis (1927)EXPAND
Erich Kettelhut for Metropolis (1927)
Collection Cinémathèque française, Paris

Disappointingly, the video clips are highly digitized, medium-resolution affairs, so anyone desiring to see the movies featured in the exhibit should seek out better sources. Fortunately, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will screen the new 4K restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at LACMA on Oct. 3, and follow it for several weekends with a number of expressionist titles, and potentially one or two more related series.

In addition, the Academy will co-present an exhibition organized at the Skirball Center, "Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950" (Oct. 23 through March 1), which will focus on the many German filmmakers who fled Nazi persecution and infused American movies with their expressionist sensibilities.

This is LACMA's third major film exhibit (including tremendous shows devoted to director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa) in the past two years, a trend that demonstrates a welcome cinematic emphasis within the museum's curatorial mission.

At each of these exhibits, a large poster has previewed the Academy's planned Museum of Motion Pictures, set to open alongside LACMA in 2017. Let's hope these shows offer a taste of what lies ahead for Angelenos on a regular basis in the near future.

Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s is at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile. Through April 26. (323) 857-6000, lacma.org


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