This is another revised version of a short essay I wrote while at Reformation Bible College, on the topic of beauty in the context of philosophy.
In the early 20th century, a new medium of artistic expression emerged in the form of moving pictures. From simple depictions of everyday life to the fanciful fantasy pieces of George Melies, film possessed a wide range of capability. But out of all the makers of movies in the first thirty years of the cinema, none intrigues me more than the German expressionists. Visually, thematically and musically these are easily the best of the silent and some works stand shoulder to shoulder with today’s production. What exactly is German expressionism, though? This can be a difficult question to answer, but if we limit ourselves to the silver screen (as a unique 20th-century art form and thus the best representation of a uniquely 20th-century art philosophy), we might find our task easier. The basic idea of German expressionism was to portray a subjective view of reality, eschewing logic driven concepts for feeling and expression.
As far as prominent figures go, I will focus on Fritz Lang, whose films I have more than once enjoyed. Lang’s masterpieces such as Metropolis (1927), Die Nibelungen (1924), Frau im Mond (1929) and his one sound film of note, M (1931, starring Peter Lorre) all brilliantly showcase the cinematic results of the expressionistic philosophy. Another classic example, though not from Fritz Lang, is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by director Robert Wiene. All of these rely heavily on core elements of the expressionistic ideal which I will discuss in greater detail shortly.
I hope in looking at the basic worldview of the expressionists and at how that worldview drives their creativity, to show that art can sometimes best reflect reality by not replicating it but interpreting it.
The Method of German Expressionism
The worldview of German Expressionism may be summarized as follows:
The Expressionist, more or less ignoring historical truth, wished to pierce the outer shell of ordinary reality and descend from surface to depth, from appearance to essence, with the intention of subsequently projecting that core, in a highly condensed and concentrated form and with the utmost intensity, back into external reality, causing the latter to be- or at least to appear- distorted. appear–distorted. [Ulrich Weisstein, “German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy.” The German Quarterly 54, no. 3 (May 1981): 265]
In other words, German expressionism can be understood as three movements, first from the outer to the inner, the inner formulation of the outer, and lastly the projection of that inner formulation. Expressionists concern with the powers of darkness and “the people trapped by their environment” (John S. Titford, “Object-Subject Relationships in German Expressionist Cinema,” Cinema Journal 13, no. 1 [Autumn 1973]: 21, 24.) was the primary inner experience through which they processed reality and thus projected back again. This often resulted in distorted sets achieved by lighting and decor to create a catastrophic, threatening world. In summation, their aesthetic was often a dark one, but not without echoes of hope, I should add. Lang’s Metropolis ends on a triumphant note, but it is a hard-won victory.
A second major aspect of the expressionist method was their use of object-subject relationships (Titford, 18). Anthropomorphism is a common element, with inanimate objects coming to life; on the other end, humans take on the characteristics of objects. Again Metropolis provides examples. The workers of the city who work the machine are themselves parts of the machine. The machine itself, however, is personified in Freder’s mind when it appears like the ancient deity Molech, a consumer of human sacrifice. Thus the parallel that Lang intends is complete.
We see that the division between organic and inanimate objects are torn down in expressionist cinema as characters have their humanity subsumed to abstract concepts they represent.
We have to recognize that art cannot depict reality with absolute objectivity and accuracy. German expressionism says that art then shouldn’t be concerned with accurate replication but with capturing and expressing the subjective experience.
I find this a needed balance to sheer descriptive art. The beauty of expressionism is that it wants to portray the world inside the characters by making their inner world the world we see. While there is a subjective foundation, it is a recognition of subjective perception, not an attempt to make all reality so. After all, the subjective experience of the character becomes the objective image seen by the consumer. Expressionism definitely makes a valid point, and while I may not be entirely in agreement with the philosophical grounds, I embrace the results which not are not only magnificent works in their own right but have influenced art that came after.