Screens haunt with shadow, angles 

October 27, 2016


Horst von Harbou/Set photograph from “Metropolis,” 1927CUTLINE FOR METROPOLIS:

The gelatin silver print from the set of “Metropolis” highlights form in the showing of Expressionism art in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Haunted Screens” Exhibit.

The latest exhibit to open at the Milwaukee Art Museum is “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s.”

If the years of the Weimar Republic hold little fascination for you as a modern American filmgoer, you should realize that German Expressionist cinema has influenced directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. With its futuristic concerns, monster characters and the like, German Expressionist cinema, which dates to Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in 1920, precipitated science-fiction and horror films.

Many artifacts of the era went on public display at the MAM Friday and will continue to be shown through Jan. 22.

“Haunted Screens,” whose arrival from France the MAM has ballyhooed as occurring “just in time for Halloween,” is something of a natural for the lakefront museum, said adjunct curator of contemporary art Margaret Andera as she led a media tour of the exhibit two days before its public debut. The MAM already boasts a permanent “world class collection of German Expressionist paintings and prints,” Andera explained.

“Germany between the (world) wars,” the curator told tourgoers, “was isolated culturally, socially, economically. (The Germans) were questioning community, they were questioning the individual’s place in community.” In a media release from the MAM, Andera called the era “a unique and revolutionary time in film and art history.”

According to the release, Expressionism “introduced a highly charged emotionalism to É painting, photography, theater, literature and architecture, as well as film.” Germany’s Expressionist moviemakers used “angles, extreme darks and lights (and) shadows,” Andera noted during the tour, that reflected the post-World War I atmosphere in the still-suffering nation. The “installation design (of the new exhibit) mirrors the mood of the time and the objects on display,” the release states. There are “walls intersecting at unexpected angles and even breaking through the exhibition space into (the MAM’s) Windhover Hall.”

Unknown artist/Poster for “M,” 1931

The murder thriller “M’s” poster is on loan from the Collection of La Cinˇmath¸que fran¨aise


The dozens and dozens of artifacts that comprise “Haunted Screens” include vintage cameras, movie posters using various languages, still pictures, documents, framed set design drawings and clips from a score of motion pictures.

“If you’re a film buff, you will love these film clips,” Andera informed her preview audience. The curator proceeded to point out ephemera from the murder mystery “M”: an “iconic” poster showing the titular letter written in red on the palm of a hand, plus photographs of “a young Peter Lorre” on the set in his first major screen role.

Among the other films represented in “Haunted Screens” are the aforementioned “Caligari”; F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise,” the only Hollywood production excerpted on exhibit screens; “Metropolis,” the 1927 Fritz Lang classic featured at the most recent Milwaukee Film Festival; and “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” also by Lang.

“Caligari” and “M” will be joined by “The Blue Angel,” starring Marlene Dietrich and first-ever Oscar winner Emil Jannings, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” in a monthly film series starting Saturday at the MAM; showtimes are at 2 p.m. For additional information on the series and other exhibit-related programming, go to

‘Haunted Screens’ begins three months at art museum  

“The exhibition is organized thematically,” Margaret Andera, adjunct curator of contemporary art for the Milwaukee Art Museum, said as she introduced a media tour group to the MAM’s new traveling exhibit, “Haunted Screens,” last week.

“Haunted Screens” is divided into five theme areas: The Street, Staircases, Interiors, The Expressionist Body and Nature. Descriptions, derived from Andera’s comments to tourgoers and explanatory signage throughout the exhibit, follow.

- The Street. In German Expressionist cinema, said Andera, a street can be a place of isolation, as well as a gathering spot for numerous people. A wall-mounted exhibit placard reads in part, “The Street is the site of all temptation, all drama,” and recalls a character named Rath’s (Emil Jannings) transforming from dignified academic to harlequin as he hurries through alleys in “The Blue Angel.” The collection of streets that constitutes a city, the posted summary continues, “represents the despondency of the German people” in the Weimar era. Also mounted on an exhibit wall: set design drawings for a movie called “The Joyless Street.”

- Staircases. The staircase, said Andera, is “one of the most recognizable devices of German film,” used at times “to instill trepidation” - but also, according to signage, as an expression of tyranny, or vice of a sensual nature. Rath ascends a staircase to degradation in “My Blue Angel.” Hitchcock (who felt, according to Andera, that “what you don’t show can be more frightening than what you do”) appropriated the symbol for his own movies.

- Interiors. Accompanying the area of Interiors ephemera is a posted reiteration of writer Kasimir Edschmidt’s theory: “For the Expressionist, factories, houses, and apartments do not exist É (Instead) all that exists is the inner vision that they inspire.”  Those who designed the “Caligari” set, an exhibit sign has it, “invented a discordant universe where light and shadows conflict, where geometry and perspective are definitely broken.”

- The Expressionist Body. A wall placard points out that a body in Expressionist cinema can be “spasmodic É like a puppet.” To wit, an inventor, who is also a sorcerer, in Fritz Lang’s futuristic “Metropolis.” Most exhibit-connected films are silent films; performers’ gestures are understandably exaggerated in the silents. But “in this (Expressionist) period of the cinema,” contended Andera, there was “even more” exaggerated acting.

- Nature. “In German Expressionist films,” an explanatory placard indicates, “nature is an object that participates in the cinematic design. For example, in ‘Nosferatu,’ waves announce the arrival of the vampire.”

- Tom Jozwik