German Expressionism at the LACMA

Oct. 20

The Expressionist exhibit’s central film highlights were “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) and “Metropolis” (1927). Both films represent the uncanny experimentation of that moment in artistic history. “Dr. Caligari” used exaggerated and painted mise-en-scene to create a visceral external representation of character’s interior psychological state. Metropolis presented a future city in which multi-leveled highways and architecture hierarchies reinforce a highly stratified class society of the future (and a killer robot).

The film was extremely complicated and visionary for the time, even if it’s moral message of social harmony seems simplistic and tied to christian mythology. At least in term of cinema history German expressionism (and Fritz Lang) played a huge role in post-WWII Hollywood and Film Noir. But even narratively, Dr. Caligari’s use of an unreliable narrator which completely flips the script at the end is something that hasn’t been utilized on a widespread manner until the “mind-puzzle” films of the late 90s/2000s. The modernist arts of Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Constructivism, etc. then were even more influential in thinking about art, language, consciousness, politics, etc. It’s difficult to conceptualize what lead to such a creative explosion but it’s most likely fueled by the frustration after World War I as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment manifested into a horrific war that mindlessly sacrificed a whole generation. Nevertheless the exhibit reminded me of just how important the European Avant-Garde was in establishing contemporary art’s social criticism and formal experimentation.