March 20, 2005


From Wikipedia: "The opposite of impressionism, expressionism centers on the artists vision rather than on the viewers impression…with dark images, sharp contrasting figures, jagged geometry, and chiarscuro."

From Dennis Jerz’s article, “The Americanization of Expressionism: The Hairy Ape (1922) and The Adding Machine (1923)”: “As seen by Gassner, expressionism ‘could be a means towards an end, as when it was employed to underscore some plot situation or some character’s state of mind; or it could be an end in itself, as when the entire play and the production were intended to exhibit a chaotic or nihilistic view of reality.’”

These two brief definitions show how the films Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with Capek’s play RUR and Antheil’s musical composition Ballet Mechanique reflect expressionism in their desire to express something new – the growing relationship between man and machine.

In Metropolis, there is a distinct separation between the upper, ruling class and the lower, working class. After being introduced to the working class and the exhausting demands forced upon them, the film shows us a garden above the city where “the sons of the owners play.” The contrast is stunning – both emotionally and visually. After seeing the depression of the working class city, the worry-free environment of the ruling class city seems frivolous and excessive. Whereas we felt pity for the workers, we are moved to feel contempt for the rulers. Visually, this is shown through the abrupt change in color – the rulers, especially our protagonist Freder, wear lighter, whiter, and less serviceable clothing. The scenery is also dramatically different. Because the garden is above the city, the oppressive factory atmosphere is unseen. There are fountains and flowers, signs of life that the workers must do without. However, the majority of the film takes place not in the garden, but in the dark, geometric confines of the subcity. These artistic ploys are not only mirrors for the dismal lives of the workers, but show how truly expressionist the film is.

The distinction between the classes becomes even more apparent when the owner Fredersen decides he would like to replace the idealistic Maria (who preaches that “there can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as a mediator”) with his newly created robot. His aim is to incite the workers into rebellion so that he may kill them all and replace them with robots. His plan almost succeeds, but his own son and the real Maria manage to save the day.

I found Capek’s play RUR very similar to Metropolis in that each dealt with man’s decreasing usefulness in a society where robots are present. Whereas the workers in Metropolis won out in the end, it is the robots who eventually replace humanity in RUR. Like Federsen, Domain wants to replace human workers with robots because they are considerably less expensive to work with. What he fails to see, however, is that by creating a machine that can replace humans workers, he creates a machine that replaces human beings altogether.

Another similarity that I found interesting is that the pivotal characters in both RUR and Metropolis are very strong, idealistic females. Metropolis’s Maria fights on behalf of the working class, preaching peace and moderation between them and their rulers. Her robot self does just the opposite, inciting the workers against the rulers, ensuring their self-destruction. Dr. Jerz states that: “The woman’s name, Maria, invokes the Madonna (just as Helena of R.U.R invoked the classical feminine ideal).” Like Maria, Helena fought on behalf of the workers – in this case, the robots. She believed that robots had souls, and in her search for the soul, she inadvertently created the mother and father of Earth’s future robotic race. While both stories have different outcomes, they each strive to show how there needs be some moderation in our relationship with machines. While machines can enrich and simplify our lives, they also have the potential to take away our humanity and make us obsolete.

The message in Metropolis and RUR is also seen in the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dr. Jerz notes that the film “does not directly address technology or materialism, except that as a type of the ‘mad scientist,’ Caligari’s evil comes from his tampering in God’s domain.” Whereas the previous two productions dealt with the more mechanized robots, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deals with a scientist who decides to manipulate a human to act as a robot. Although Cesare proves the existence of his soul by his refusal to murder Jane, his actions are so automated that they resemble both those of the robots and those of the working class in Metropolis.

Although unable to witness the visual effects of RUR, I found that the few stills provided of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were artistically similar to Metropolis. The film seemed to reside in shadows, with the exception of the whiteness surrounding Jane. Both the circus where Dr. Caligari is first found and the asylum where he is last seen are filled with an eclectic mix of geometric shapes. I felt that these stills showed a contrast in the film that, paired with its thematic issues, creates a film that is uniquely expressionist.

Paul Lehrman’s essay on his experiences creating the first performance of Antheil’s original Ballet Mechanique was incredibly intriguing. The composition itself seems just extraordinary, and I would love to be able to experience its performance. The very nature of his composition – combining mechanical music with man-made music – is extremely similar to the three works I’ve already discussed. Antheil attempted in his composition to create a piece where human musicians were only marginally necessary. Knowing that his original composition could never be realized in his era, he created a version where the humans would have more control. However, “even without his 16 Pleyelas, Antheil’s machinery went out of control.” In the disastrous performance at Carnegie Hall Antheil managed to display the opposite of what he had aimed – that machinery is a poor substitute for humanity. Lehrman’s recent success is producing Antheil’s original composition shows, however, that increasing technology can, however, replace humanity.

Posted by JohannaDreyfuss at March 20, 2005 06:31 PM | TrackBack


I have a research about the element of expressionism in the play of HAIRY APE by ONIEL.And short definition for expressionism.

sincerely yours,

Posted by: vahid at June 13, 2005 12:10 PM
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