Thursday, February 12, 2015

Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s (exhibition at LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Boris Bilinsky, poster for The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse), c. 1925, directed by G. W. Pabst, La Cinémathèque française. Source: LACMA website. Click to enlarge.
Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s. LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Art of the Americas Building, Level 2. September 21, 2014–April 26, 2015. Visited on 12 Feb 2015.

Official introduction: "Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s explores masterworks of German Expressionist cinema. From the stylized fantasy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1919) to the chilling murder mystery M (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931), cinema during the liberal Weimar era was innovative in aesthetic, psychological, and technical terms."

"Organized by La Cinémathèque française, Paris, the exhibition features over 150 drawings, as well as manuscripts, posters, and set models, the majority gathered by Lotte Eisner, German emigrée film historian and author of the pioneering 1952 text The Haunted Screen. Additional works come from the collections of LACMA’s Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies and from the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Kino Ektoplasma—a three-screen installation created for the exhibition by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson—resurrects lost films of the Expressionist era in mesmerizing film sequences. The exhibition was designed by Amy Murphy and Michael Maltzan with Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc."

"In Los Angeles, Haunted Screens is presented by LACMA in association with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is generously supported by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Riza Aziz.
" (Official introduction).

AA: On display as an art exhibition some of the most legendary images from the German cinema before 1933, inspired by Lotte Eisner's groundbreaking art historical book L'Écran démoniaque, many of the images familiar from her book itself, but also with dozens of less known ones.

I did not see the original La Cinémathèque française edition of this exhibition, and this is a revised edition anyway with many works added from LACMA's own collections. This is a tribute to the great art of Hermann Warm, Otto Hunte, and their colleagues, who here can be appreciated not only as designers of unforgettable sketches but also as masters of the charcoal, pencil, watercolour, oil, and gouache. The sensual, aching quality of their art, expressionist, Neue Sachlichkeit or otherwise, comes into its own.

This exhibition is a part of the LACMA's long-term dedicated project of Expressionism and German culture, building on the Robert Gore Rifkind collection and other sources of their own. I had also the privilege to visit the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies and see samples of their fantastic collections of German graphic art before 1933.

I seriously considered visiting also the Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd), but the LACMA exhibition was so powerful and overwhelming that I could not have managed it after that.

AFTER THE JUMP BREAK: LACMA Blog articles by Britt Salvesen and Claudine Dixon.
AFTER THE JUMP BREAK: LACMA Blog articles by Britt Salvesen and Claudine Dixon.

Unframed the LACMA Blog:
Britt Salvesen, Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints and Drawings Department. Film. Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s, October 15, 2014

Reflecting on the 1920s, when he came to prominence 
as a film director, Fritz Lang said: “Perhaps never before was there a time that sought new forms through which to express itself with such reckless determination.” Thus Lang characterized the zeitgeist of the Weimar Republic, a fragile liberal democracy that replaced the kaiser’s imperial government 
in 1919 and ended with the rise of National Socialism in 1933. During this tumultuous period, culture flourished amid social unrest, inflation, and excess.

In this exhibition, clip sequences reveal the guiding vision of directors such as Lang, F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene. Working drawings and vintage photographs document the skill of the architects and designers with whom they collaborated; vintage posters hint at the omnipresence 
of film culture on city streets. These unique materials survive thanks to the efforts of Lotte Eisner, a German film historian who immigrated to Paris in 1933 and over time persuaded many of her former compatriots to donate their archives to La Cinémathèque française. Eisner also inspired the title of LACMA’s exhibition; her pioneering 1952 book, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, compiles her reflections on Expressionism’s theatrical origins, her critical evaluations 
of key films and directors, and her theories about German cinema in relation to national character.

Film brilliantly registered the Weimar era’s anxiety and exhilaration. Inspired by the new art form’s potential, a cadre of talented directors, production designers, architects, cinematographers, writers, and actors forged the cinematic style known as Expressionism. Rebellious, antirealist, and reliant on exaggerated gestures and primal emotions, Expressionism had emerged in German art, literature, and theater in the years preceding World War I. As seen in the recent LACMA exhibition Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky, the style had complex origins and exerted a widespread influence, only to be interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Expressionism resurfaced in silent cinema in the 1920s, mirroring the strains of modernization and distinguishing German film in the international marketplace.

Expressionism’s visual hallmarks—chiaroscuro lighting, elaborately fabricated sets, angular graphics—produce a mood of yearning, unease, and paranoia. While often manifesting itself with genuine anguish, the style could also be mocked by its very creators. In Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), the evil protagonist is asked his opinion of the phenomenon. “Expressionism?” scoffs Dr. Mabuse. “It’s just a game. Everything is a game nowadays.” This cynicism is part of the complex emotional maelstrom of Expressionist cinema. Plots are equally complex skeins of flashbacks, dream sequences, and reversals. Characters such as magicians, doppelgängers, automata, vamps, clowns, princes, devils, bureaucrats, and killers embody the murky ambiguities of human identity.

Visitors to Haunted Screens will see that the plaza-level galleries of LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building have been transformed yet again into a stylized, abstracted landscape. The design team, jointly led by Amy Murphy and Michael Maltzan with Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc., readily embraced the challenge of creating a framework for these historic objects and images. As they put it, “One of the most compelling aspects of German Expressionist cinema is the works’ use of dramatic spatial sequences as an inherent part of storytelling. Without trying to mimic the iconic aesthetic of this movement, we looked instead to provide visitors with a way to engage the spirit of the works through a contemporary series of forms and spaces. The exhibition’s architectural elements intentionally create an undulating dialogue between dark and light, inside and outside, space and form, rupture and unity—highlighting the simultaneous and often overlapping worlds of art, film, and design so often represented within each film’s production.”

The interior areas, or tunnels, contain suspended screens, on which clips are projected. Set design drawings, still photographs, and other works on paper are presented on custom-designed shelves and columns, their unorthodox presentation emphasizing their status as working documents, in service of the final films. The exhibition’s roughly chronological sequence also highlights the thematic preoccupations and increasing technical resources of Expressionism’s key directors. The first section, “Madness and Magic,” focuses on a psychological and societal tendency to turn inward and escape into the imagination. Making do with limited resources in the early years of the Weimar period, directors developed innovative means of exploring complex themes in the cinematic medium.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) embeds text within the live action and features an unforgettable hand-painted, anti-illusionistic set design. Just as the visual environments in Expressionist films are off kilter, so are the characters unhinged: a clay figure comes to life in The Golem (1920); a doctor may be a charlatan or a killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; a law student turns murderer in Crime and Punishment (1923). With their multiple identities, these equivocal protagonists must have struck a chord for audiences unsure about the individual’s role in a new society.

Identity could also be sought in the past, as explored in the exhibition’s second section, “Myths and Legends.” Many postwar artists looked back to German Romanticism at the turn of the nineteenth century, with its visionary heroes and exaltation of nature. Harking back to classic tales, films such as Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen (1924) helped German audiences transcend postwar privation and bolstered their sense of national identity. Epic tales required bigger productions, many of them funded by the leading studio, Universum Film AG (UFA), under the producer Erich Pommer. As the economy began to recover and German films proved their viability on the international market, Pommer sought to rival the scale of Hollywood. Lang’s ambitious two-part Nibelungen took an unprecedented nine months to film and earned acclaim for its artistry. F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) likewise reveals painterly influences; the cinematographer Carl Hoffmann emulated the Romantic technique of Stimmung, or the play of light and shadow, with novel special effects.

While many Expressionist films transported audiences to faraway or imaginary places and times, others were rooted in present-day urban reality, as demonstrated in the third section, “Cities and Streets.” The growth of German cities during the Weimar period—the population of Berlin rose to 4.24 million, making it the world’s third-largest metropolis after New York and London—led to housing shortages, unemployment, strikes, and demonstrations. Industry and technology also transformed everyday experiences for the urban populace. Cities teemed with automobiles, streetcars, advertising, and pedestrians. The resultant sensory overload, anxiety, and alienation could be captured on film via composition, editing, and—beginning in 1927—sound.

Haunted Screens concludes with a section called “Machines and Murderers.” As the 1920s unfolded, the stylization and subjectivity of the earliest Expressionist films gave way to an approach known as New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), a movement that will be examined in greater depth in a forthcoming LACMA exhibition, New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933, opening in October 2015. Despite its nominal realism, the new style was nonetheless reliant on special effects and production design and could be applied to any story line, from futuristic fantasy to present-day murder mystery, as Fritz Lang demonstrated in three masterful films: Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).

If these films offer warnings about Germany’s political situation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, none of them explicitly show the Weimar Republic being dismantled by the National Socialists, with their repressive and anti-Semitic policies. Lang, along with many of the directors and artists whose work is featured in this exhibition, was forced to emigrate in 1933. Mass exile brought an end to Expressionist cinema in Germany while facilitating its dissemination and evolution worldwide; this significant historical development is explored in the concurrent exhibition at the Skirball, Light and Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950. While only a small percentage of the approximately three thousand films produced in Germany during the Weimar Republic can be considered Expressionist, the style proved decisive for thefuture evolution of cinema, helping to establish its artistic and psychological potential, advancing camera technology and special effects, and giving rise to genres such as film noir, science fiction, and horror

A version of this article originally appeared in the fall 2014 (volume 8, issue 4) of LACMA’s Insider. (Unframed, the LACMA Blog, LACMA website).

From Unframed, the LACMA Blog:
Claudine Dixon, Curatorial Administrator, German Expressionism:
The Myths and Legends of German Expressionist Cinema
November 19, 2014

Primeval forests, nocturnal flights of fancy, and a fire-breathing dragon are a few of the themes featured in the "Myths and Legends" section of Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s. Harkening back to earlier times from German art history, legend, lore, and literature, the two films that are highlighted in this section are Fritz Lang's The Nibelungen: The Death of Siegfried (1924) and F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). To complement the mysterious and dramatic atmosphere that is illustrated in the works on view, the exhibition installation design by Amy Murphy and Michael Maltzan of Michael Maltzan Architecture, Inc., pays homage to the subject matter with column-like structures to display the artwork, evoking a forest of trees within the museum galleries.

The story of Siegfried, the hero of Teutonic myth, is depicted in a group of drawings, done primarily in gouache and ink wash, by artist Otto Hunte, as well as in black-and-white photo stills from the film. Hunte was one of the set-design artists who worked for film director Fritz Lang, and his drawings display the initial ideas that led Lang to form the iconic compositions for specific scenes in his film. Lang is perhaps best known for his later German films, Metropolis and M—also featured in the exhibition—as well as for the American film noir features he made in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. It was the early German films, however, such as the two-part Nibelungen, which introduce us to Lang's successful working method in collaborating with artists to bring epic stories to life.

Here we see the spindly birch trees that surround the doomed hero as he kneels to quench his thirst at the forest stream. With his backside facing his unseen assailant, Siegfried is unaware of the terrible fate that awaits him. Despite the moment of extreme violence suggested in the story, Hunte has instead placed emphasis upon the organic forms of the slender, wraith-like trees within the landscape rather than upon the foreground figures of Siegfried and his assassin. Our eyes are first drawn to the towering trees and the dappled play of light upon their trunks, rendered in variants of white and gray gouache on the sheet.

In all of Hunte's drawings for The Nibelungen, the landscape is predominant, similar to the painting style of the great 19th-century German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The drawings convey nature as all powerful (and often threatening), and the human and otherworldly figures within the environment are subservient to the omnipotent force of the natural world.

In addition to the many drawings on view, The Nibelungen is supported by a number of silver gelatin print film stills that capture the rich contrasts in the black-and-white film. All the drawings and photographs are from the collection of La Cinémathèque française in Paris, a bequest to that institution by German cinema historian Lotte Eisner. Also included in the exhibition is a jewellike book focusing on the Nibelungen saga from LACMA's Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies , with brilliant color and gold-leafed lithographic plates created by the Austrian artist Carl Otto Czeschka.

F. W. Murnau envisioned the tragic legend of Faust through the drawings done by Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig, two artists who collaborated with him on the realization of his film. Although they formed a working partnership, Herlth and Röhrig were also competing against each other to produce the final drawings that Murnau would ultimately select for translating the specific scenes within his film. In this drawing by Herlth, Faust is accompanied by Mephisto on a journey above the earth, the billowing folds of the figures' cloaks producing the illusion of a giant bird soaring across the sky. The image conjures the illustrations found in children’s fairy tale books, such as for the tales written by the great German fabulists Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Röhrig's more introspective composition depicts Faust as he contemplates his predicament upon a barren landscape that is visible from an aerial view that cuts off the horizon line at a skewed angle, reminiscent of the more "expressionist" lines and minimal forms that were evident in earlier films such as Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). This abstract formatting adds to the drawing's purpose as a document for the visual arrangement of the scene—it also succeeds in conveying the Stimmung, or the mood and atmosphere—that pervades the psyche of the alienated protagonist.

A spectacular working drawing for the model of the dragon in The Nibelungen is one of the masterworks in the exhibition. It was created by set-design artist Erich Kettelhut and includes detailed handwritten notations that describe how the dragon was manipulated in order to make it appear "alive." Each component of the dragon's constructed form is carefully delineated, showing the working mechanisms that were installed by the production designers. There is also a cross-section view of the dragon’s upper body. Especially intriguing is the red-penciled description, which indicates where a telephone connection should be installed inside of the dragon’s body for the person operating the interior machinery to communicate with the film crew outside—a hint of practicality within the fantasy that is being formed! This drawing may constitute one of the earliest studies related to cinematic special effects—showing the ingenuity of early filmmakers and their collaborators in the 1920s, realized without any of the computer technology that is taken for granted in the making of films today

(Source: Unframed the LACMA Blog) (LACMA website).

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