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dreamscape, nightmare, city: the weirded urbanisms of German expressionist film

By Owen Vince.

Until 1988, before it was tragically and shortsightedly condemned and demolished, Berliners would have been able to walk into the echo of a film set. The interior of the Berlin Grosses Schauspielhaus, the theatre designed in 1919 by Hans Poelzig, was the final work the Berlin-born architect undertook before designing the massive, expressionist sets for the phenomenally popular film, The Golem, in 1920.

Had those Berliners gained access to what would later be, at various points, a staging post for the Wehrmacht, a cattle pen, and a zoo, they would have likely been amazed by Poelzig’s striking interiors – its foyer of expansive and exaggerated stacked columns, bubbling cornices, and the massive supporting pillars of the concert hall itself, constructed out of maquernas, a “honeycombed pendetive ornament which resembled stalactites” massing into the grand sweeping dome of the theatre’s ceiling. During the 1920s, attending a play by Max Reinhardt, they would have looked up into a roof of light whose bulb fixtures formed playful constellations against the ceiling’s dome. Some would have noticed how this light-bulb motif, and the decorative use of maquernas, had featured heavily in Poelzig’s ghetto scenes in The Golem. It had been the constellations themselves which had warned Rabbi Loew that his people were in danger in its opening scenes.

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But by 1933 – in the shadow of Nazism – the BGS’s life as a theater would be over, as expressionism’s troubling dreams awakened into a violent reality.

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German Expressionism had an ambivalent relationship with the city and the built environment. The movement had began in woodland and rural village “folk” life, in an attempt to extract from nature the primitive expression of a simpler, rawer imagination. Expressionism rejected naturalistic representation in favour of the expressive, almost dream-like imagination of the subconscious, the repressed. It is no surprise that modern life remained a source of constant fascination for these artists, poets, and cinematographers. The lectures of urban theorist George Simmel had exercised a strong influence on them, for whom the urban individual was defined by an “intensification of nervous stimulation”, wherein Simmel recognised “the immense burden imposed on the spatial and temporal dimensions of the imagination by rationality and functionality”. This urban Expressionism sought to depict “those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses” which defined metropolitan life. In doing this they rejected  “an exact reconstruction” of that life, in favour of what artist Kirchner referred to as “hieroglyphs”, by making use of an aesthetics of steep perspectives, distortions of scale, and disjointedness, through works such as his Funf Kokotten (Five tarts, 1914 – 15) and Frauen am Potsdamer Platz. It was a complicated visual imaginary which sought to capture “life”, while refusing to do so as an exact naturalistic copy of it. Instead, they would “get at” urban intensities through the oneiric dream-space of the warped and the formally irregular. Life at that time constituted a “grim nostalgia” combined with a predisposition toward the mystical – it was an uncomfortable balance barely held in check by the dominant bourgeois values of a deeply stratified, industrial society.

There was a strongly anti- as well as utopian strain to this practice; where some found excitement and intensity, others found fragmentation and negative disorder. The prints of Paul Gangolf and Otto Dix sanctioned this use of a “concrete abstraction” to demonstrate the urban subject as one who was smashed apart and disappeared by the city and made ugly by it. But, always there remained in these works the possibility that this experience was constructive, that dissolution was a creative impulse which enabled both projection and positive transformation, an almost sublime encounter through the re-organisation of perception.

The three “big” Expressionist films of the 1920s, which so successfully and perhaps uniquely entangled avant garde aesthetics with mass market appeal, had each revolved around typologies of urban and architectural space: The Golem (1920), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), and Fritz Lang’s powerful Metropolis (1927). In the post-war cities of the 1920s, in the depreciating economy of a “defeated” country, the environment itself became – to these artists – a source of both excess and of violence. Night clubs exploded in number and depravity, while banks and courts assumed a monstrous, senatorial irony. What use were these outposts of the state in a period of social disintegration and cultural failure? It is no surprise that contemporaries of German Expressionism, reading publications such as Der Sturm and the angular journalism of Max Brod, would draw on distinctively architectural concepts when describing the way in which such art enabled the artist and the spectator to view “inside” this new and uncertain modernity:

“now all at once we really saw [it]. Even although behind the walls of a distance which could never be bridged, they became to us unexpectedly transparent”.

Yet all of this was short lived. Der Sturm closed in 1932, while Poelzig’s theatre went in 1933. The dismantling and failure of the BGS echoed the fate of the contemporary German film industry, which was strangled first under economic constraints and, later, by the Nazi’s campaign against so-called “degenerate” art, or that of the avant garde. The fate of Poelzig’s interiors was the fate shared by many of Berlin’s most experimentally new architectural and urban forms, from the drooping, angular masses of expressionism to the objective parallelism of Walter Groppius’ Bauhaus. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and ideologue, was motivated first and foremost by classical mass and “ruin value”, as frigid and monstrous echoes of Ancient Rome. Meanwhile, his chief film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl, sought to evacuate German cinema of its experimentalism. The troubled, bent-backed and expressive forms of Wegener’s film were replaced by the muscular, coherent – and, as it were, fabricated – bodies of Nazi anthropology.

Before its untimely death, however, Expressionism was always “about” an articulated exaggeration, rich symbolism, and stimulated stylization. The films which drove forward this aesthetic existed in a particular contorted moment, between two hugely disruptive wars and two quite different regimes. They gave vent to an eruption of the anxious dreams of society into its waking realities. When foreign films had been banned in Germany in 1916, the domestic market was spurred into action in a cabaret of excess in which cinema-goers felt that it was better to spend their money on film tickets than to save it and invest in a rapidly depreciating economy. Dark, moody, distorted, the external surfaces and angular, massed constructions of these designs echoed the florid boiling and mania of a tumultuous subjectivity trapped between slaughter, capital, Communism and xenophobia. These were films that, in their popular appeal, gave visual expression to the mood of the time, bursting forth into the landscape and the built environment itself, even into the wild gestures and choreography of actors whose facial expressions and bearing jolt between rapid scuttling and angular statuesque postures, their eyes shooting open and their mouths broadening into wide, dark holes.

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Tragedy and collapse continually limn the exaggerated urban topologies of the era’s films; in The Golem (1920), the Jewish community of medieval Prague are given an ultimatum that they must leave the city or suffer the undoubtedly violent consequences. In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), a dangerous, stalking figure haunts the town’s jostling, decaying buildings, while in Metropolis (1927) the city itself becomes a vast machine designed to segregate the rich from the poor, continually crushing and dehumanising those who are imprisoned within it, labouring, beneath the city’s skin. In each, a kind of skewed status quo gives way to a necrotic eruption into chaos, a violence of sudden starts and surges which make uneasy and dangerous allusions to machines and the hammer of inhuman force; the animated yet lifeless clay of the Golem; the murdering somnambulist of Dr Caligari, and the surging proletarian masses of Metropolis who themselves crush and annihilate the machinery which runs the city’s clubs, lights and traffic. In each, pleasure is itself the ambivalent attraction which underscores the chaos of the story. Sexuality, material excess, indolence and decadence frequently give way to death and disorder. Expression over structure. Worringer – writing at the time – drew a distinction between the “structural aspects” of architecture and its animated “expressive factor”, which necessitated an “extracting from the dead materials an expression corresponding to a definite a priori will”. The gloopy, irregular and physically materiel textures of Poelzig’s Prague ghetto were replicated in the lumpen body of the Golem itself; both were contiguous, the “clay of my clay”. Like the Golem, the ghettos were irregular, ambivalent; tombs as much as communities in so far as the ghettos were policed districts which the city’s Christian population used to imprison the Jews, both fearing and persecuting them.

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The Berlin of the 1920s, Paris and New York – these were cities of poverty and excess. Night clubs, cabaret, drugs, sex and alcohol jostled dangerously against poverty and radical politics. These were cities with one foot in the future and another in the medieval, Grimm forests of these country’s recent past; as a barbarous, magical life which slumbered in the recesses, ready to burst forth. Wegener and Poelzig made clever use of contorted, lumpen and angular masses, organic niches and stairways, to convey the precariousness and anxiety to which the ghetto’s population were subjected. The ghetto is depicted, materially, formally, as one that has formed under dolorous conditions. In contrast, Prague castle – seen from a distance, beyond a contorted re-imagining of the Charles Bridge – is a bastion of Gothic (ir)regularity. It all comes together in a form of densely weird “extraterrestrial urban sprawl”.

In a similar vein, Dr Caligari’s township is one that – being a film about psychosis, sleep and murder – allows the barrier between the dreamed and the ‘real’ to evaporate. Dr. Caligari’s patient – a somnambulist who stalks the city’s nightly streets – becomes increasingly involved with them. Bowed, contorted doors, black-white spirals, and shaky sharp crenelations form the bridges, niches and galleries through which its inhabitants – and the murdering sleeper – prowl. The sets are both villagey and tormented, where the exuberance of the city’s slanted buildings and impossibly long, thin chimneys suggest a tortured dream-festival held within the body of the traditional German village. Most important was designer Robert Wiene’s attempt to create an environment that was obviously “phoney”; “the painted shadows on walls, the flat prop trees, the misshapen doors, windows, and walkways”.

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These were a contorted externalisation of the character’s fearful minds. If everything “looks” fake, then what is real? A fake film that makes no effort at naturalism disturbs the separation between spectator and screen. It is a total dreaming state in which the barriers between the dreamer and the dreamed, the projected and the real, are articulated in a jarring mash of lines and bichromate forms: everything is either shadow or light. The city provides the “stage” for this collapsing of the dreamer into the dream.

Familiar forms were given new and troubling contortions. For Lotte Eisner, such sets constituted an architecture of a ‘beseeltre Landschaft‘, or ‘Landschaft mit Seele‘ – a “landscape with soul”. Rather than filming “real” houses, corridors, stairways, it was necessary to reduce – and thus expand – the landscape to a fitful, agitated expression. This was helped by the fact that German studio Ufa “absolutely refused to use exteriors”. Quite literally, the directors were forced to create their films “about” the soul’s interior life within the pure and abstracted “interior” space of the studio.

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Seven years later, Lang’s Metropolis gave an opportunity for the Expressionist obsession with glass, skyscrapers, intensity and exaggeration to be realised as actually fake, albeit physical, locales. Metropolis is the most directly urban of the Expressionist films, repeating all of the possibilities – and disadvantages – that such a modernity promised. Of course, this existed within it an acknowledgment that the conditions of modernization, dangerously heterogeneous and fragmentary, “endangered the essential mission of an avant-garde” who sought to construct positive possibilities in place of dislocation and commodification. As such, the metropolis provided a legitimate source of positive artistic inspiration, but was treated by the Expressionists in a deeply ambivalent manner, partly because technology – with which the modern city was conflated with – was a dystopic as well as utopian device. Metropolis gave expression precisely to this ambivalence, for the film’s city itself is both ugly and beautiful. Of course, Lang’s initial impulse had been aesthetic; on seeing the skyscrapers of New York, he had responded by arguing that “the buildings seemed to be a vertical veil, shimmering, almost weightless”. And, like a veil, they were only as real as “illusions” were real.

The film’s script gave vent to the social, aesthetic and sexual tensions which striated and cut across Weimar Germany in the 1920s. But, as a film, it is not ideologically “Expressionist” to its hilt. If expressionism was guided by a fundamentally individualistic “heart”, then Metropolis depicts an ambivalence regarding the heart’s potential to – alone – resolve humanity’s problems. In the film’s then controversial conclusion, it is a rapprochement between hand and head that is guided by the heart; they are not collapsed into it. The “heart” must coexist among the technologically modern, even if that modernity was – as the film itself admitted – anarchic and ambivalent. Heart – anarchic, unpredictable – led to the violent uprising which Lang’s film so fretfully depicts. It is a deeply conservative confrontation with the politics of the time.

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Regardless of its ideological stance, however, the urban forms of Metropolis remain stunning examples – at least, in part, for the film makes use of many sources – of a mature Expressionist aesthetic. The sets and painted backdrops consist of huge bold built forms which make use of a concentrated and angular massing – skyscrapers like mountains, their glass dark rather than reflective and wrapped about by raised roads and train tracks; it is an exaggerated architecture of hollows and bastions, surfaces and punctures which refuse to be reduced to an easy “resemblance” of the New York on which the film’s aesthetics had been initially based. The presence of the scientist’s craggy, Poelzig-esque cottage – within all of this massive modernity – echoed the gnarled, physical buildings of The Golem, a remnant of an earlier and more ‘primitive’ aesthetic imagination with all of the magic and disorder that this contrast suggested. It conveyed the raw, natural and anarchic basis of the modern project, and its uneasy relationship with the technologically, socially ‘modern’. It is no surprise that Metropolis ends with a machine witch-burning before the steps of a monolithic Gothic cathedral. Such were the dramatic, visual impulses to which the expressionists returned time and again; the city was awe inspiring but, in its monstrosity and technological futurism, also deeply oppressive, refusing to escape its own past.

Expressionist cinema’s ambivalent relationship with the city produced some of the most enduring film art ever made. While it is impossible to say that the expansionists were “saying” any one particular thing with their studio-designed cities, it is evident that they utilised a “non representational”, jarring, and non-figurative aesthetic to give expression to the tensions and energies of the urban modernity which they confronted both in the trenches of France and in the cities of Weimar Berlin. The exaggeration, formal irregularity, and textural disjunctions that appeared on film screens across both Germany and the world were testament to the clash of both old and new modalities, and of an attempt to give voice to a subjective dream-like glimpse into the towers, suburbs, nightclubs, malls and offices which these artists, architects and directors encountered on a daily basis. Their being already a fabrication of the “real” city meant only that the audience was forced to confront the fact that such artificial – yet familiar – spaces could not re-create the visual depth of real places. But the film-makers did not want the films to “be” real, only to have come “from” the real. A dream is only ever an amalgam, a mirror, a reflection rather than the reflected.

By the mid 1930s, Germany’s diverse, artistic experiment would be over. In its place a new and more dream-like (properly nightmarish) phantasm of ethnic collectivism would have trampled its avant-garde into dust. On Kristallnacht, the horrifying dream-city of the expressionists became a tragic reality.  The expulsion of the Jews from German cities into the death camps of the provinces added a certain sad terror to Gustav Meyrink, author of The Golem’s, 1915 words: “always they treat it as a legend, till something happens and turns it into actuality again”.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Owen Vince is a poet, design critic, and managing editor of PYRAMID Editions poetry press. He writes on digital art, experimental video games, and architecture for the likes of The Arcade Review, Failed Architecture, and Unwinnable, among others. He tweets @abrightfar.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 28th, 2015.