A Cinematic Study in Modern Anxiety at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Oct. 24, 2016
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“Haunted Screens: German Cinema of the 1920s” is a media-hopping study in modern anxiety and the visual methods for capturing and conveying it. The artistic movement German Expressionism was a reflection of the prevailing mood in Weimar Germany (1919-1933). Brought low by the First World War, asphyxiated by the Treaty of Versailles and suffering from hyperinflation that rendered paper money of more valuable as wallpaper, Germans were in a bad way. However, this shame, grief and concern about the future became a potent artistic impetus that formed the template for contemporary science fiction and dystopian films. Viewers will also find temperamental and aesthetic similarities to the film noir of the 1940s – America’s own post-war cinematic brooding.

“Haunted Screens: German Cinema of the 1920s” draws from the collection of Paris’ Cinémathèque Française, smartly installing scripts, sketches and screens to lead viewers from inchoate concepts through their iconic execution. The exhibition opens with ephemera such as vintage cameras, lights and promotional material along with informative introductions to the movement and historical situation that begot it. The meat of the exhibition is organized thematically with rooms devoted to “Nature,” “Interiors,” “Staircases,” “the Street” and “the Expressionist Body.”

As was the case in German Romanticism, “Nature” for the Expressionists was a place of enchantment. “Germany is a country that is well-suited for old witches, dead bearskins and golems of all sexes,” writes Heinrich Heine in a quote that is reproduced on the exhibition wall, “It is only on the other side of the Rhine that such specters can flourish. France will never be a country for them.” Director Fritz Lang provides an apt illustration of this sentiment in his 1924 silent film Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, in which the eponymous hero squares off against a fearsome dragon. An elaborate document outlining the construction of the dragon will be of especial interest to film buffs, prop masters and determined designers of nonpareil Halloween costumes.

“Interiors” examines how the angular architecture characteristic of the Expressionist aesthetic conveys the experience of oppression. A similar experience is examined through “Staircases.” “Staircases in German Expressionist cinema are designed to instill trepidation,” remarks curator Margaret Andera, “They’re always difficult to travel and it’s never clear what’s above and what’s below. All that is intentional.” Escaping the stairs didn’t necessarily mean you were in the clear since, in the visual vocabulary of the Expressionists, “the Street” is either a place of isolation or frenzied mob activity. The cherry on top of the exhibition, so to speak, is a reproduction of the famous Maria robot from Metropolis in the section on “the Expressionist Body.” She lords over viewers from a high pedestal and has been lit to throw a menacing shadow on the wall.

After viewing “Haunted Screens: German Cinema of the 1920s,” visitors are encouraged to step into MAM’s permanent galleries where selections from its world-class collection of German Expressionist paintings and prints will be on display.

A robust programming cycle will accompany the exhibition. MAM will screen exemplars of German Expressionism (and a Hitchcock film that proudly wears its Expressionist influence) as part of its film series: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Oct. 29), M (Nov. 12), The Blue Angel (Dec. 10) and Rebecca (Jan. 14). The films will be shown in the Lubar Auditorium at 2 p.m. Three local filmmakers will discuss the cinematic movement with Andera on Fridays (Nov. 4, Dec. 2 and Jan. 6) at 6 p.m. And on December 3, at 2 p.m., Jonathan Jackson, the artistic and executive director of Milwaukee Film, will speak about the continued influence of German Expressionism on contemporary cinema.

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