Expressionism Round 1: Edward Scissorhands vs Dr Caligari

My last post, about German Expressionism, got me to thinking about the influence of those films. It’s huge, of course – just about every film or genre which interrogates the darker side of the human experience (horror, sci-fi, noir or neo-noir and so on) owes a debt to Nosferatu  or Metropolis or M. Students sometimes miss the links between then and now, so I thought I might try to draw a few of the more obvious links.

The director most obviously indebted to the Expressionists is Tim Burton. From his very first short, made in 1982 while he was working at Disney, the Expressionist influence on style and content is clear. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Burton’s style never meshed too well with the Disney vision. He didn’t last long.) Any still from that first stop-motion short, Vincent, shows how the Expressionist approach to light, location, aesthetic in general has been wholly adopted by Burton. The light and shade, exaggerated features, nightmarish locations and generally gothic tone – all present and correct. Watch it here.

It’s probably best to admit that I’ve never actually been a huge fan of Tim Burton. His ‘weirdness’ has always struck me as a little too tidy and packaged and, well, not actually very weird at all. His vision of the world is a lot lighter and ‘kookier’ than the Expressionists of old. This is not necessarily a criticism. Burton’s work is an acting-out of the common cultural transaction between the avant-garde and the mainstream; in the same way Quentin Tarantino took influences from the French New Wave and various somewhat obscure genres or movements, then packaged them together in a very mainstream-friendly way, Burton is taking Expressionist ideas and sanitising them for the bulk of viewers. This happens all the time, in all sectors of the cultural landscape. Elvis Presley took black rhythm and blues and toned down the overt sexuality a little to make it acceptable for a mainstream audience. Nickleback took the punky grunge of Nirvana and turned it into soft rock. Twilight is a cleaning-up of the vampire myth for a younger, less adventurous audience. (Compare Nosferatu to Edward Cullen…) World War Z takes the unconventional narrative structure of Max Brooks’ original (and fantastic) novel and ditches it in favour of Brad Pitt and a conventional action narrative. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that; it’s just how culture works.

Having said all that, Burton has made some movies that I love. Big Fish is one of those films that I feel vaguely ashamed about liking; it is shamelessly sentimental and relies completely on Hollywood schmaltz and typical Burtonesque ‘kookiness.’ But, it’s a lovely, feel-good look at father-son relationships and Helena Bonham Carter isn’t too annoying in it. (Another thing that has troubled me about Burton is his dependence on Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Both fine actors, but scarily similar…)

My favourite of his films, though is Edward Scissorhands. Made in 1990, it’s about an ‘unfinished boy’ who has, unsurprisingly, scissors for hands. He is adopted by a regular family (insofar as anything is ever ‘regular’ in Burton’s world) and taken to live in what looks like a perfect American small town. This is effectively Burton’s reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – just as the early Expressionists looked to myths and gothic tales for inspiration, so does Burton in this instance. The location is brilliantly realised, with everything in sickly sweet pastels – houses, cars and people. It’s also very unrealistic which, of course, puts it firmly in the Expressionist tradition. There’s also some twisting of genre convention here; the spooky castle on the hill, where Edward lives, is actually a healthier environment for him than this superficially pleasant but cripplingly conservative suburb.

From the start it’s clear that not all is perfect in this world – the residents are variously promiscuous, nosey, deranged with religion or vindictive. More than anything else, it’s clear that the townsfolk (or, at any rate, the women) are frustrated and bored. Edward offers variety and contrast – in narrative terms, binary opposition – in every way. Most obviously, he looks different; dressed in black leather, he doesn’t exactly blend in with the pastels. Again, this focus on the ‘outsider’ experience is typically expressionist, although Burton is more inclined to present ‘outsiders’ as wholly good. The characterisation here is a lot simpler than in something like M.
Edward himself is an (expressionist) artist who works on a grand scale – he makes huge topiary and ice sculptures of body parts, animals, humans. For a while he is a local celebrity, but then, of course, the townsfolk turn against him. That ‘groupthink’ we saw in M is evident here also, represented by the local women, who egg each other on via frequent phone calls to first welcome and then persecute Edward.
The most obviously ‘expressionist’ thing about the film is the aesthetic – non-realistic locations, extreme camera angles, use of dramatic light and shade (especially in the castle, Edward’s home, at the start.) Here we see Peg Boggs (‘Avon calling!’) climbing the staircase in Edward’s mansion, and a more typical example of the expressionist aesthetic would be hard to find – lovely use of light, massive locations which dwarf the human subjects and, of course, the gothic iconography of the candles the windows and so on. Even the staircase itself and the frames on the window remind us of the ‘bars’, signifying entrapment, which crop up everywhere in Expressionist and, later, Noir film.
I’ve mentioned Lang’s M quite a lot here, but the most obvious Expressionist reference point is probably Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The subject matter is similar in that both films deal with ‘created’ humans; just as Edward is made by ‘The Inventor’ (Vincent Price – inspiration for Burton’s Vincent, in his very last role) Cesare is controlled and effectively ‘made’ by Dr Caligari. It’s a dark theme, the idea of one human assuming complete control over another, and as such it lends itself very well to the Expressionist treatment.
Locations in this film are much more expressionist and non-naturalistic:
Painted windows and shadows, walls and roofs distorted at weird angles, this is much more obviously artificial and extreme than Burton’s vision, and it reflects a much more twisted view of the world. Likewise, Edward is a bit tame compared to the silent, murderous Cesare, but it’s not difficult to see where Burton borrowed the dark clothes / white skin idea from:
And yet, Cesare is as vulnerable and as much of a victim as Edward is – he has no control over what he does. However the audience’s sympathies are not so clearly manipulated; we can’t help but love Edward, but Cesare is a genuine monster. In that regard, this film is more sophisticated, and it asks more from the audience, than Burton’s.
Finally, both films deliver their narratives via a framing device. In Burton’s case, this is a trick to crank up the sentimentality a little bit more; the story is told by Edward’s love interest Kim, years later as an old woman, and we all realise that they have been close together – Edward is back up in his castle –  yet separated for decades. In Wiene’s film, however, we find out at the end that the whole thing is the dream of a madman in an asylum, and all the characters suddenly shift on us; our hero is actually a lunatic, our villain is a doctor and so on. This complicates things and makes the viewer’s response even more problematic. Indeed, by the end of the film, we are not sure who to like; Burton’s film never comes close to creating that sort of ambiguity.
To my mind, then, Caligari is the better film, if we judge films according to the demands they make on viewers. Clearly, though, Tim Burton has managed to make these ‘old’ ideas and aesthetics work for a contemporary audience, and that’s no mean feat in itself.

2 thoughts on “Expressionism Round 1: Edward Scissorhands vs Dr Caligari

  1. Pingback: Expressionism Round 2: Robocop Vs Metropolis | reflections

  2. Pingback: Gravity | reflections

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