Sunday, October 09, 2016

Rudolf Kurtz: Expressionismus und Film (a book)

Paul Leni: cover design for Rudolf Kurtz: Expressionismus und Film (1926)

An illustration in Rudolf Kurtz's book.

Rudolf Kurtz: Expressionism und Film. An art book by Verlag der Lichtbühne, Berlin 1926. With 73 reproductions, 5 colour plates and a cover illustration by Paul Leni.
    Nachdruck Zürich 2007 (Chronos), Herausgegeben und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Christian Kiening und Ulrich Johannes Beil.
    Read in the English edition:
    Rudolf Kurtz: Expressionism and Film. Edited with an afterword by Christian Kiening and Ulrich Johannes Beil. Translated by: Brenda Benthien. Printed and bound in China. Distributed by: Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Published by: Herts: John Libbey Publishing Ltd., 2016.
In Pordenone at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the excellent programme catalogue, but there was also another splendid book in the guest package – a copy of Expressionism and Film by Rudolf Kurtz.

I have known since my school days the classic books on Weimar cinema by Lotte H. Eisner (L'Ecran démoniaque) and Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler). I think they were available at the Tampere city library, and I soon acquired copies of my own.

Eisner and Kracauer both relied on the first classic book on the topic – Rudolf Kurtz's Expressionism and Film – but I had never come to read it before now.

This book is very well written. Rudolf Kurtz was himself an insider in the German expressionist movement. We get a unique and privileged look into the birth of expressionism and the artistic atmosphere surrounding it, including trends in Picasso (Horta de Ebro, 1909) and Chagall (Naissance II, 1918) and the discovery of African art and the art of the insane. There are passages on sculpture, architecture, music, theatre, pantomime (Valeska Gert), and typography.

"Of all art forms, film seems to be the least like art and the most like nature". This condition of naturalism was challenged by the expressionists, most famously in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, approaching the condition of painting. Kurtz studies aspects of art direction, technology, and cinematography in making this happen. "Light breathed soul into expressionistic films".

Kurtz focuses on the few key films: Caligari (the beginning which "has never been surpassed"), Von Morgens bis Mitternacht, Genuine, Das Haus zum Mond, Raskolnikow, and Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, and also gives comments on expressionist elements in film in general, including works such as Die Bergkatze, Nosferatu, Die Nibelungen, Hintertreppe, and Die Strasse.

But even more generally: "Expressionism lent a hand whenever there was a need to express a particular kind of muted energy that was poised to spring, or whenever one strove to depict the sense of a situation beyond its outward appearance. Whether the liveliness of a cosmopolitan street or the oddness of a setting was to be rendered on a deeper level of consciousness, expressionist form was called on to provide the effect". These remarks seem valid even for film, television, and cyber games today.

There is an excellent chapter on abstract art. Kurtz on Malevich: "Light and dark, direction and expansion organize the visual space into a battlefield of motion". Film-relevant names include Man Ray, Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Fernand Léger, Walther Ruttmann, and Francis Picabia.

Kurtz analyzes the contributions of the director, the screenwriter, the actor, and the art director. He is frank about the limitations of the expressionist film, a topic to which is devoted a chapter of its own. In 1926 Kurtz saw expressionism already as a phenomenon of the past. "Expressionism as a strict art form is no longer current". "Wherever there is movement, there is change in the world; uniformity is paralysis of the soul. All paths lead toward the goal, but only a bolt of lightning can spark a flame".

The editors, Christian Kiening and Ulrich Johannes Beil provide an extensive and useful apparatus of notation and a highly rewarding sixty-page afterword which helps us understand the context and impact of Rudolf Kurtz's work. They also expand the list of relevant films with titles such as Verlogene Moral, Erdgeist, and Algol, and later related works like Shinel, Geheimnisse einer Seele, and Metropolis which had not been released by the time of the publication of Kurtz's book.

Kiening and Beil document the reception history of the book. It is also fascinating to learn about Kurtz's reaction to Eisner's work: "You are missing the central premise of my book. For me, Expressionism is not an artistic genre, but the expression of a world crisis".

Read today, Kurtz's work turns out to be one of the foundation works of studying film from the perspective of art history. It is based on first-hand observations and written in a style ranging from sober commentary to inspired generalizations. With its excellent illustrations it is also itself a work of art within the expressionist movement.

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