Let’s Talk About “Expressionism”–in Movies

Recently I almost jumped out of my seat, spilling my popcorn, when a commentator on a DVD made the bald statement that Fritz Lang was not an Expressionist. Wow, I said to myself, Lang was one of the most expressionistic directors imaginable–“Scarlet Street,” “Hangmen Also Die,” “The House by the River”–what’s this guy talking about? Then I calmed down a bit and considered the problem. Obviously they paid this guy to record that commentary, so someone must think he knows what he’s talking about. I pondered his claim a bit more.

I think the problem, in saying that Lang was no Expressionist, is that he was really saying that Lang didn’t, or rarely, made use of expressionistic visuals in his films. That’s a fair assessment. Lang usually kept things plain. But here are two points to consider–Expressionism itself was never a uniform visual style. Different artists or schools of artists took it in different directions–one of which was called New Objectivity. This school played down visual pyrotechnics in favor a more realistic, but highly judgmental form of social criticism. It wasn’t necessarily a satiric point-of-view, but it was clearly a worts-and-all vision of life. Lang certainly had strong affinities to New Objectivity.

Here’s another point worth mentioning–far from being a purely visual concept–Expressionism, which drew inspiration from sources as diverse as Medieval German religious art and modern tribal sculpture from Africa and the Pacific Islands, extended into all of the arts and it stood for a heightened vision of reality. Yes, Conrad Veidt was being an Expressionist actor when in 1919 Germany he slinked around corners as Cesare the somnambulist in “The Cabinet of Caligari,” but he was giving no less of an expressionistic performance as the decadent nobleman Torsten Baring in the 1941 Hollywood melodrama “A Woman’s Face.” In each case Veidt was heightening the reality of the character by the use of expressive gestures–and in the latter case–line delivery, to create a vision of the character’s inner life, the real reality. Another case in point is Robert Reinert’s 1919 Expressionist epic “Nerves” in which the acting is Expressionist in the extreme, while the mise-en-scene is staunchly Realist. Again the Expressionism was in the acting, not the sraging. As far as that goes, if we consider Expressionism as an acting style, Adolf Hitler’s speeches are masterpieces of expressionist acting style–and we now know that he carefully studied each “spontaneous” gesture to gauge its effect on the mob via photographs he had made of himself rehearsing. So, if we recognize that there can be Expressionism at work without relying upon expressionistic visuals, then Lang is not a non-Expressionist film director, he is the very dean of Expressionist directors!

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