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.
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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 Essay: Generational Community

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Robinson Crusoe is one of my favorite literary works of all time, both narratively and thematically. Defoe’s classic is packed with insights into the nature of man and especially man as an individual and in relation to society, or in this case the absence of society. In February of 2017, I wrote an article for Reformation Bible College on the subject of society in Robinson Crusoe and how the absence of community is Defoe’s commentary on the need for companionship. In that article, I wrote:

However, it is the sheer absence of any society that proves to be the greatest nemesis to our hero. He successfully meets and overcomes the challenge of food, housing, and clothing; he even finds methods of making pottery, a luxury to a man in Crusoe’s dire situation. He establishes three houses and keeps a cave as an emergency storage unit. He grows wheat and makes bread. He also tries to brew beer, though he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. But despite his abilities in these areas, he cannot overcome his loneliness […] For Crusoe, all of his work is pointless if he has no one to share it with. He might as well be dead. 

Defoe is showing us what God said in the Garden, that man needs companionship.  But instead of Robinson Crusoe, I want to talk about another staple of castaway stories, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and where the message in this novel both compliments and yet departs from Defoe. Unlike CrusoeIsland is not about isolation from one’s fellow man. We have a group of four men at the beginning, with some additions later on (or rather we have three men and a boy, but let’s not play at irrelevant semantics). But aside from surface differences, the books have deeper conflicts and thematic contrasts. Two major themes will be the focus here. First: Redemption of a single man versus Opportunity for mankind. In this theme, the novels differ. This will lead to the second topic: Incomplete Society, a theme where the stories share a common element but the authors approach the subject differently.  On a source note, while I prefer the recent translation of Island over the original (better rendering of dialogue and of course a correction of the  infamous alteration of Nemo’s last words from the more appropriate “Independence” to the cliched “God and Country”), I’m sticking to the original translation for this discussion because I have a hardcopy readily available and the differences are, aside from Nemo’s final words, not significant enough for me to warrant tracking down the recent translation.

As I said, in Island, the heroes’ see their circumstance as an opportunity, while in Crusoe, the hero’s dire situation serves as a means of personal redemption. Shortly after confirming their location is an island, the following manifesto is said by the sailor, Pencroft:

“If you like Captain, we will make a little America of this island! We will build towns, we will establish railways, start telegraphs, and one fine day, when it is quite changed, quite put in order and quite civilized, we will go and offer it to the government of the Union. Only, I ask one thing…It is, that we do not consider ourselves castaways, but colonists, who have come here to settle.” (78)

Pencfort’s declaration is crucial to establishing the tone of Island. Compare this to Crusoe’s “State of affairs” list, where considers the evil and the good of his situation. The “evil” is related to his loneliness –  “I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from human society (72)” – while the “good” consists in God’s providence and his deliverance from death – “But I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was (72)”.  Crusoe does eventually see himself as master of the island, but his understanding of his situation remains functionally the same. His efforts are toward colonization but survival and escape. The fundamental factor at play in their differing views, it seems, is society. For Crusoe, there is no society, which means his only purpose is to live with the hope of rescue and in the meantime improve himself. For Verne’s heroes – the colonists-  the situation is different, with a group of men stranded together. Naturally, their thoughts turn towards taking dominion of the island, transforming their new home into something like the world they once knew.  But what about Friday? When Crusoe eventually finds the native and is no longer a solitary man, his goal does not change. Is this merely a cultural or period distinction then? Can we reduce the issue to a matter of Crusoe not being a “Yankee”?

Culture and period certainly play a factor here, but in their differing circumstances and background, one similarity remains- neither Crusoe nor the Colonists have a true society. Crusoe recognizes this incompleteness – his first action upon finding and teaching Friday is to reconsider his ideas for escaping the prison of his island.  But what is this blind spot that the Colonists of Verne’s story ignore? The inability to guarantee the second generation. Crusoe sees the ultimate pointlessness of his work without others to share with or pass it down to. The Colonists see themselves as beginning a new American state,  but so long as only these three men and a boy are the sole inhabitants of the colony, the efforts have just as little meaning as solitary Crusoe’s.  Neither book mentions this idea, but it is a question and a conclusion the reader cannot escape: True society consists of both the current and future community.

Consider the first words God spoke to a human being:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, Bring forth fruit, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over every beast that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, Geneva)

To fully subdue the earth, there must be the continuation of life, new generations – simply put there must be families and there must be children. All of these words are hated by the progressive elements of our society. The simple reason for why Verne, himself a devout Catholic and no stranger to these truths, ignores – or allows his characters to ignore – this element in their task of dominion lies in his target demographic (boys), and his focus on adventure and general avoidance of romantic storylines. But Verne’s personal views and literary intentions aside, I think the hubris of the Vernian Colonists in imagining themselves the conquerors of their island when they had no heirs to inherit their hard-won kingdom, reflects the hubris of our day in believing ourselves advanced and progressive while downplaying the importance of organic families, children, and generational heritage.

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In Robinson Crusoe, the lack of current society is an evident and explicit evil. In The Mysterious Island, the lack of a future society is a subtle but implicit evil that, thanks to their eventual salvation, is avoided.  The most meaningful and lasting legacy a man and woman leave are their children – not their work, not their achievements. These are good things but without future generations to enjoy them – they lose value. A great book is meaningless if there is no one to read it, a scientific progression pointless if no one will pick up the baton, a house dead if there is no one to live in it a hundred years hence.  Without future generations, there is no legacy, no important achievements. For a community to be true, good and beautiful, it must be generational.

Editions: 

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, Tom Doherty Assc: 1988

Verne, Jules. The Mysterious Island, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1946.

 

Friday Essay: “Jekyll in Hyding”

This is an edited version of an essay I wrote at Reformation Bible College. This is the second in a series I’m developing of Friday Essays. Because the original footnote format is difficult to transfer to a blog format, I include parenthetical footnotes with the author’s last name and the page number; all referenced sources are included at the end of the essay.
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Richard Mansfield portrayed both Jekyll and Hyde in a stage adaptation(1887-88); this double-exposure photo shows him in both roles  c.1895

Thanks to Universal Studios sensationalized cinematic version of Stevenson’s classic story in 1931, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has yet to receive a fully faithful film adaptation. Too often Hollywood turns this fascinating look at the naked human soul into a Halloween freak show about monsters and mad scientists. I have, however, seen at least one interpretation which tries to capture the intent of the original story. Produced for television 2003 and starring John Hannah, this particular version deviates from the book’s plot in many ways but most importantly by removing the physical change from Hyde. Nonetheless, it drives home the reality that Jekyll and Hyde are in fact one person, not two. The story is often seen as a narrative look at the tension between the good and evil in man, but I believe we must be careful not to confuse Jekyll’s view (a view clearly laid out in his letter to Utterson) and Stevenson’s view of man. Jekyll holds explicitly to a dualistic view of man’s nature. By contrast, Stevenson, I want to argue, actually holds that good and evil are not two natures at war in man. Rather, good and evil are conflicting characteristics of the one nature. Hyde is Jekyll’s hidden sin.

Hyde’s name is key to understanding his relationship with Jekyll. In the story, Jekyll never tells us how Hyde received his name- did his other self simply come with a predetermined name or did Jekyll select one? To understand why the name “Hyde”, we have to look beyond Jekyll and back to the actual author, Stevenson, who clearly intends a double meaning with his name choice. In Chapter 2, Utterson in his quest to find the mysterious Mr. Hyde comments to himself, “If he be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek (10)”. Hyde is homophonous with the word “hide”, a word that characterizes Hyde’s entire existence. From sneaking into Jekyll’s house almost instantly after his unmasking to withdrawing into the laboratory and his eventual demise, Hyde remains cloaked in a shroud of silence. Even Jekyll’s final confession declines to divulge the full extent of the depravities committed by his other self. Edward Hyde then is a metaphor or symbol of Jekyll’s hidden sinful life. Stevenson’s purpose is to show the hidden Hyde that all men possess the potential to be if the restraints are removed. For Jekyll, and presumably Stevenson, the restraints are societal conventions or the desire to be respected. Jekyll’s barriers come crashing down when he becomes Hyde, a state induced by drugs. Jekyll ascribes a neutral power to the agent of change, so I believe Stevenson wants to avoid a “Hyde is Jekyll on drugs” (although that is technically true) concept. Rather, when Jekyll takes the potion, he is removing his reasons for morality and his sensitivity to those around him. It is the reasoning process that leads to the rationalization of our sin. In the end, however, Hyde becomes manifest without the aid of the drug. Sin becomes his norm, and in terror, Jekyll adopts the primary characteristic of Hyde by hiding himself from the world. At one point, as he engages in conversation with Mr. Utterson and Mr. Enfield during the final period of intense seclusion, he begins turning into Hyde. Eventually, Hyde consumes him to the point where Hyde becomes the norm. By depicting the slow replacement of Jekyll by Hyde, Stevenson describes the festering and toxic nature of hidden and unchecked sin. Jekyll seeks to redeem himself by suppressing Hyde, not through revealing him and seeking forgiveness. Granted, Stevenson himself as a non-believer would be less inclined toward the concept of repentance and offers little if any redemptive hope for Jekyll’s situation. I find it odd that while occasional references to God and heaven are made, the Church is practically nonexistent in this story. Jekyll’s best friends are a lawyer, a subtle but important reinforcement of his condemnation, and another doctor, who displays the inability of science to deal with human nature. Since science fails him and the law can only judge him, Jekyll has nowhere to turn and inch by inch he succumbs to the power of his own deceitful heart, a heart wherein hides Mr. Hyde.

While Hyde cloaks the desires of Jekyll on the one hand, on the other he ultimately reveals those same desires. By the end of the book, Jekyll hates Hyde but only after Hyde ruins him. Even then, he writes in his confession:

But his love of me is wonderful; I go further: I who sicken and freeze at the mere thought of him, when I recall the abjection and passion of his attachment, and when I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him (43).

Despite all the horrors committed and the tragedy caused by Hyde, Jekyll cannot fully hate him. From the beginning, Jekyll wanted Hyde, but he also wanted the perks and privileges which attended his status as a respected doctor. Through his identity as Hyde, Jekyll indulges his inner lusts and while shocked at the deeds done in this state, he only truly renounces the activities and appropriation of Hyde after the murder of Sir Danvers. Jekyll is not the good side of the same being to Hyde’s evil part, or else he would have long before sought to destroy him. Even the doctor himself admits that Hyde “was wholly evil” and Jekyll “was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had learned to despair (37)”. If the theory espoused is one of two natures, this requires Hyde to be pure evil and Jekyll to become pure good. Hyde is depraved in every fiber of his being, but he is not the totality of Jekyll’s depravity because Jekyll retains his own sinfulness. Hyde merely serves to exposes the true Jekyll.

Although Jekyll speaks of Hyde as a separate person who shares his consciousness, his denial flows out of a visceral reaction to Hyde and refusal to accept any deeper connection rather than a coherent and logical deduction. Far from being another individual, Hyde and Jekyll are clearly one and the guilt of Hyde is the guilt of Jekyll. As the final hours of Jekyll’s physical existence draw to a close, the bachelor describes Hyde as “knit closer to him than a wife” (43). If man is a duality as Jekyll believes then why are Jekyll and Hyde still one person, not two separate beings? Let us assume Jekyll’s theory for the sake of argument. Essentially, Jekyll believes man is not one but two, and the two can be “housed in separate identities” (35). If man is actually a union of a good and evil personality engaged in an internal war and Jekyll can extract the animalistic evil into its own personified state, then Jekyll ought to be without any evil or any negative characteristics. If we push even further, Jekyll and his evil alter-ego should not share the same consciousness. In the book, Hyde is never without Jekyll in some sense, nor Jekyll without Hyde. Hyde’s gradual ascent to primacy is not a removal of Jekyll but an unmasking. In using this analogy, Stevenson paints a bleak picture of man as but a savage dressed in fancy clothes and conventions to keep him from killing his neighbor. When the conventions cease to bind the conscience, the savage acts in accordance with his basest of desires. Despite his passionate insistence that he only shares a consciousness with Hyde, in his heart of hearts I believe even Henry Jekyll realizes Hyde is indeed part of him.

As a tale born out of a nightmare, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems better suited at first glance to provide horror material than a philosophical look into the nature of man (Balfour, 15). Yet Stevenson’s work has proven a significant literary voice in the question of good and evil in man. Stevenson is essentially Hobbesian in his view of man unrestrained, but he also shares some concepts with Scripture. While Stevenson was not a Christian, he nonetheless lived in age familiar with Biblical concepts and was himself raised in a Scottish Presbyterian home. Regarding a minister of the Church of Scotland in his lineage, Stevenson commented:

Now I often wonder what I have inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them (Memories and Portraits, 112-113).

Scripture and Stevenson agree that all are prone to evil and that evil touches every aspect of our being (Rom. 3:10-23), that the heart possesses a deceptive nature (Jer. 17:9) and that sin is corrupting and consuming (e.g. Job 15:17-35; Ps. 38:5-8; Jn 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:22). James 1:14-15 provides an especially sobering and relevant commentary that applies to Stevenson’s story:

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death. (ESV)

Of course, Stevenson departs from Scripture in his lack of redemption offered. The gospel of Christ is not beyond any sinner, not even Edward Hyde. But all truth is God’s truth and Stevenson gives us insights that are worth thinking on regarding sin and its effects. And the most haunting truth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is this: The sins of Hyde consumes Jeykll because the sins of Jekyll feeds Hyde and we can easily see that Hyde is nothing less than Jekyll in hiding.

 

Sources:

Balfour, Graham. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Wisehouse Classics Edition). N.p.: Wisehouse Classics, 2015.

————————-.  Memories and Portraits. London: Chatto and Windus, 1906