The Artistry of German Expressionist Film On Display At Milwaukee Art Museum

Dec 22, 2016

Most people who consider themselves film buffs have seen or at least know of the classic silent films, Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  But the German Expressionist movement that they were a part of has a much broader sweep than just those two titles.

From acting styles to scenic design, the German Expressionist film movement, which began after the first World War influenced Hollywood in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.  And you can still see its influence in more recent films, as well - movies like The Grifters and Mulholland Drive.

The original German Expressionist film movement is at the heart of a new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s is on display through January 22, 2017.

"The Milwaukee Art Museum has an extensive collection of German Expressionist art, paintings and prints particularly, and our audience knows and appreciates that material very much." explains Margaret Andera, adjunct curator of contemporary art. "This is the film equivalent."

"When you look at these set drawings, these are not storyboard drawings," she says. "These are beautiful works of art in an of themselves. They were done by artists who were working as German Expressionist artists, many of them, not just film set designers."

Hermann Warm (Germany, 1889–1976). Set design drawing for The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag), 1926. Director: Henrik Galeen (Austria, 1881–1949). Pastel
Credit Collection of La Cinémathèque française, D027-26

Not only were the sets examples of skilled artistry, but also the filmmaking itself was groundbreaking, Andera explains.

"When you look at the rooms that these films take place in, oftentimes the actors are scrunched down because they barely fit into the room," she details.  "It's this idea that the aesthetic becomes almost a character in these films. It conveys the mood of the film. It's one of the first times that happened in film history."

Andera notes that the exhibit can appeal even to those who say that films of the past are not for them.

"I've brought people through who've said, 'I don't know if I'm interested in old films,'" Andera comments. "I say, 'Just walk through, just walk through,' and they say, 'Oh, Alfred Hitchcock! He must have seen these films,' yes, he did."