At the same time that Eisenstein was experimenting with the capacity of editing or montage to give heightened emotional and political impact to his filmed narratives, the German filmmaker F.W. Murnau was concentrating on the potentials of the enframed image, the way specific photographic effects could add psychological expressiveness to the profilmic action. (As discussed in chapter 1, the term profilmic refers to the characters, settings, props and other aspects of the film's mise-en-scène before they are captured or enframed on celluloid.) Like many of his contemporaries working in the German film industry in the 1910s and 1920s, Murnau was influenced by Expressionism, the art movement that dominated German painting, literature, theatrical production and acting in the early twentieth century.1
In The Haunted Screen, a book on German Expressionism in the cinema, Lotte Eisner draws upon the writings of Kasimir Edschmid to define the essence of Expressionism in art:
Expressionism, Edschmid declared, is a reaction against the atom-splitting of Impressionism, which reflects the iridescent ambiguities, disquieting diversity, and ephemeral hues of nature. At the same time Expressionism sets itself against Naturalism with its mania for recording mere facts, and its i «M^
Figure 12. The objects of the natural world have become threatening, unnatural. (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920, Film Preservation Associates.)
paltry aim of photographing nature or daily life. The world is there for all to see; it would be absurd to reproduce it purely and simply as it is.2
The Expressionist artists sought to abstract, distort, and hence transcend the look of everyday reality in order to represent the world—not objectively, but as the artist sees or experiences it. Given the historical context out of which German expressionism emerged—the horrible carnage of World War I, Germany's humiliating defeat, the social instability of the Weimar Republic, and spiraling inflation—it is not surprising that many German artists of this period imbued their vision of the world with feelings of angst, doom, and paranoia.
Cinema's capacity to mechanically reproduce images of the physical world—its ability to faithfully record "mere facts"—might seem to disqualify it as a medium for Expressionism. But German filmmakers nevertheless managed to incorporate the visual motifs and themes of Expressionism into their works. Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) accomplished this goal by photographing its action against a background of recognizably painted Expressionist sets that weirdly distort
the natural world into forms that externalize the tortured inner world of the film's disturbed narrator. The artists who designed the sets for Caligari (Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig) were practicing expressionist artists and involved with the publication of the magazine Der Sturm, which was dedicated to disseminating Expressionist art.
In describing the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, William Nestrick conveys the visual impact of the stylized sets by focusing on their radical transformation of the natural and man-made world (figures 12 and 13).
In the foreground and background of the shots of Caligari's tent, there are short trees or bushes; similar ones appear in the graveyard, around the bridge in the chase after Cesare, and about the path where Cesare finally collapses. They are recognizable representations of nature, but they have become unnatural. They violate principles of growth; on the hillside, they do not grow in the position in which trees usually grow. Most are denuded of leaves, and where they have leaves, the leaves look like spears. They threaten, they point, they seem to cut even as they themselves are cut . . .
Something has also happened to the architectural world. Buildings lean, bend, or rear themselves straight up (against the usual lines). Everywhere the right angle is rejected, the very angle that, in the simplest structures, makes for stability, balance, soundness. . . . Everyday artifacts, the world we make to shelter and comfort us, have been transformed into the unstable, unbalanced, unsound.3
For Murnau, Caligari was both an inspiration and a dead end as a model for cinematic art. It was an inspiration because it abandoned the slavish imitation of a real, objectively perceived world to present a subjective vision. At the end of the film, which is narrated as an extended flashback, it is revealed that the distorted look of the world was a function of the narrator's mentally unbalanced mind. Caligari was a dead end because it projected the character's vision primarily through the film's mise-en-scène, that is, its two-dimensional painted sets, a means borrowed from the theater. Hence, it did not fully exploit the expressive possibilities inherent in the cinematic medium.
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