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Haunted Screens

Milwaukee Art Museum focuses on German Expressionist film

Oct. 18, 2016
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A sinister figure trailing a black cape, with a headful of fuzzy white hair protruding from under his top hat, pads around inside a fantastic dream world of crooked houses, bent streets, roofs like witches hats and shadows as sharp as knives. He produces an impossibly askew business card that reads: Dr. Caligari. He explains that he wants to give a demonstration of hypnotism at the town’s outdoor fair, but given that the story is a flashback told by an inmate in an insane asylum, the audience has every reason to wonder who and what the doctor represents. 

The 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is at the heart of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new exhibition, “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s.” Excerpts from several of the era’s characteristic films will run continuously on screens alongside original movie posters, storyboards, production photographs, film stills and other artifacts, including a life-size model of Maria, the malevolent humanoid robot from another signature German film of the period, Metropolis.

The exhibition takes its name from The Haunted Screen, the seminal book on pre-Nazi German film by Lotte Eisner, a Jewish critic who fled Germany when Hitler assumed power. Working at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, Eisner built the archive from which the Milwaukee Art Museum drew the material for “Haunted Screens.” 

The art museum has long held an impressive collection of German Expressionist paintings and prints. Curator Margaret Andera sees “Haunted Screens” as “another facet of that. I love how the exhibition focuses on the art behind the films.”

Prevalent throughout German-speaking Europe by the opening decade of the 20th century, Expressionism drew its emotional energy from anxiety over modern life with an impetus toward self-expression that ran counter to the realism of post-Renaissance art. Instead of replicating the appearance of the external world, Expressionist painters projected their own often-troubled experience onto that world. Modern yet archaic, the Expressionists looked to the Gothic past for inspiration. Soon enough, Expressionism influenced theater productions and migrated, after the civilization-destroying carnage of World War I, into the nascent medium of film. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the perfect realization of cinematic Expressionism, creating an hallucinatory twilight world where every object, from window panes to the streets they look upon, is distorted. Formative in cinema history, Dr. Caligari proclaimed that movies could be art as well as entertainment. Caligari entered the DNA of filmmaking, especially in film noir and many Alfred Hitchcock productions, but also in any movie where off-kilter camera angles indicate the protagonists’ psychological or moral instability or their encounter with the uncanny. Caligari’s title character turns out to be a psychiatrist and Sigmund Freud’s unconscious realms, untouched by reason, lurk in the shadows.

The museum’s gallery space is adeptly reconfigured to mirror Caligari’s world. The doorways aren’t four square but as threateningly angled as guillotines waiting to descend; the walls are penetrated by curious apertures and painted with streaks of darkness. “It’s all about the aesthetic of German Expressionism in its filmic form,” Andera explains. “It’s about the play of light and shadow—the way the filmmakers used lighting technology to create the same effects as Expressionist painters. The set drawings are beautiful works of art with superb draftsmanship rendering images to suggest the motion in motion pictures.”

The films represented in “Haunted Screens” include notable early examples in genres that have since become dominant in popular culture. No contemporary horror film can match the creepiness of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire picture, Nosferatu; the futuristic urban set for Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis remains impressive and its prediction of human-technological hybrids was prescient. As for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, film scholar Siegfried Kracauer famously interpreted the sinister psychiatrist as an unconscious forecast of Hitler for his power to mesmerize and the public’s willingness to fall into a trance. But the film’s resonance is more than historical.

“Some of the young staff at the museum saw Caligari and said, ‘That’s Tim Burton! and the sleepwalker, Cesare, looks just like Johnny Depp!’ My daughter is a big Hunger Games fan and she thinks dystopian visions are a new thing. I’m looking forward to her seeing some of these films,” Andera says. 

“Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s” runs Oct. 21-Jan. 22, 2017 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. For more information, visit mam.org.


In conjunction with “Haunted Screens,” Present Music’s concert on Friday, Oct. 21 concert at Milwaukee Art Museum, “Angst, Horror & Fun,” will include chamber music in the Lubar Auditorium, solo and duo performances amidst the German Expressionist artwork in the Bradley Collection, a tour conducted by curator Margaret Andera, a short film inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with an original score by Present Music’s Eric Segnitz, a screening of Nosferatu with a score by Segnitz and John Tanner and a performance by Quasimondo Milwaukee Physical Theatre. For tickets and more information visit presentmusic.org or call 414-271-0711.


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