Friday Essay: German Expressionism and Art’s Relationship to Reality

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Scene from Metropolis (1927)

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. 

Introduction

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.

The Takeaway

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.

 

Sources

Titford, John S. “Object-Subject Relationships in German Expressionist Cinema.” Cinema Journal 13, no. 1 (Autumn 1973): 17-24.
Weisstein, Ulrich. “German Literary Expressionism: An Anatomy.” The German Quarterly 54, no. 3 (May 1981): 262-83.

Friday Essay: Second Guessing Providence?

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“What if?”

“What if” is the driving question of the Alternate history genre. It is a less well-known genre in the broader world of fantasy and speculation fiction but I think many people have often asked “what if” about the past, even if only their own past.  What if you had made a different choice, or a different opportunity had arisen? We tend to second-guess ourselves, so it’s no surprise we tend to second guess history.

As a dedicated fan of the alternate history genre, a question I’ve wrestled with is “Should a Christian engage in a genre seemingly based on second-guessing the ways of Providence?” If that was the extent of the genre’s intent, I would say a Christian should avoid it. After all, God’s ways are highest and his determination best. But Alternate History not inherently about second-guessing the course of history.

Alternate history is an exploration of cause and effects, how action A, which in reality led to outcome X, could have led to outcome Y if action A had a variation.  If the French had not aided the American colonists against England, how would history and our world today be impacted? What if Charles Martel had not withstood the Moors at the Battle of Tours? History is forged link by link by human decisions as governed by God’s will. In Alternate History, the idea is to show the fragility of outcomes and for the Christian, this should make us thankful for God’s providence in directing history.

This appears to make sense as long we explore undesired alternate outcomes. But about fantasies of a “better” timeline? Alternate history by showing seemingly “better” world reminds us of how fallen people mess up.  It’s a reminder of the corrupting power of sin and the ease with which we make mistakes.

For these two reasons, and the sheer fun of imagining answers to “what if”, I enjoy a good story of alternate history.  They remind to both be thankful for the sovereignty of God in history and aware of my sinfulness and the impact my choices make.

Friday Essay: Things with Feelings

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Bilbo Baggins is small, but he is more than a little human.

Growing up, I had a distinct preference in books and movies for human characters. I did enjoy stories about non-human characters. I loved the farmyard gang of the Freddy the Pig series, the classic Winnie the Pooh, the rascals of Uncle Remus and the relatable Garfield. You will notice a few commonalities – these are animals (or stuffed animals in the second instance)  and they exist in a world with humans.  But generally speaking, I prefer human characters. Especially in comparison to anthropomorphic inanimate objects.  I never knew why, but lately, I’ve been doing some thinking on the question – why do I prefer actual human characters over anthropomorphic ones? I believe my preference boils down to an understanding of what it means to be human.

It is generally understood that the most important aspect of a character in any story is their relatability. This does not require similar life circumstances, it merely requires the character to have motives, qualities, and struggles which the reader or the watcher can understand. I’ve never had to travel with a group of dwarves to their ancient mountain home to recover treasure and haggle with a dragon. But I understand Bilbo’s conflicted desires of adventure and home, the earning of respect and the development of confidence. Is this all there is to relatability, however? Is it simply a matter of relating to feelings? I recall reading an observation (in the form of a screen captured forum thread) to the effect that Pixar’s basic modus operandi is to create a story where something has feelings – toys, cars, bugs and of course even feelings themselves. I admire the creativity I suppose but I’m a little tired of humanity being boiled down to a matter of simple feelings.  I relate to Mr. Baggins on another level, a level I do not relate to with Lightning McQueen or Woody or even, honestly, Winnie the Pooh. Bilbo might be a “Hobbit” but biologically he is a human, just a little smaller than normal.

To be human is about more than feelings. My human existence involves a very physical dimension. I have two hands, ten fingers, two opposable thumbs, two feet, I walk on two legs in an upright position, I eat food that digests in my system and comes out again; I breathe, I have lungs and a complex arrangement of internal organs that protest if I injure them or eat the wrong food, I have blood flowing through my veins and a heart that quickens its pace when I run or get excited;  I can ache but also enjoy delights of a chilly breeze on a fall morning or the smell of sawdust. I can relate to actual human characters on a very fundamental level because I can imagine myself walking in Bilbo’s non-existent shoes and feel as he felt. If Tolkien’s Hobbit were an oak leaf or a potato, I would lose that level of connectedness.

Are these all exclusive to humans? Some are, some are shared with animals. But therein lies the fundamental flaw of anthropomorphic characters for me – they cannot be fully human. Animals come closer to emulating humanness than inanimate objects but only because they have the advantage of sharing basic physical experiences such as touch and smell. And yet, even with animals, the further a character is from the mammalian species, you lose more and more physical commonality. As a side note, I realize not all people share in some of the experiences I just listed. There are those unable to see, walk, talk, hear or those without limbs. But that does not negate the fundamental humanness of these abilities and experiences. After all, not all humans have the emotional capabilities either. But even those humans with “disabilities” share in the physicality of humanity. The issue is not about what do all humans do but about those experiences generally related to being human.

Am I saying that anthropomorphic characters are bad? No, they have their place. But I am leery of how heavily populated children’s media is with these wannabe humans. I am worried because of the message entire generations have internalized about what it means to human, a diluted half-truth that takes from them the full drama of humanness in all its ugliness and beauty. As a Christian, I believe that man is made in the image of God. I also believe that God the Son became perfect man, and lived a human life. Jesus experienced human life in its full physical and emotional state – he was truly man as the old creeds say. If humanity is something God himself made and did not disdain to share in, I think we should take care to preserve a full understanding of our humanity. Especially in the arts.

Friday Fun Post: An Original Play

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Looking through my old files for some essay content, I came across this project for one of my Humanities classes my sophomore year. This was an allegorical play in the style of John Bunyan that three other classmates and myself collaborated on and performed (I wrote the actual script and story, but we contributed together towards the idea). So, I thought I’d see about putting here for y’all to enjoy.  I’ve done a few edits to make it flow smoother but tried to preserve the original as best as I could. I hope you like it!

 

 

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