The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences

Cinema History and Bataille de boules de neige

When I was teaching film history, one of the stories I would tell was about the showing of the a film by the French Lumière Brothers called “Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat” (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). This 1896 film had a running time of 50 seconds. It shows a train pulled by a steam locomotive entering the train station of the French southern coastal town of La Ciotat, near Marseille. It is like most of their early films and is a single, unedited shot with no intentional camera moves.  The story – which I have since learned is a myth – was that when it was shown it so startled audiences that people jumped from their seats.

The American film “The Great Train Robbery” from Thomas Edison’s studio in 1903 also had a “shocker” shot of a gun fired at the audience. But audiences did not jump up in fear when they saw that gun fire.  Made 7 years after the Lumiere film, audiences had seen more films and were used to more sophisticated “effects.” This film was edited, had wide shots, close-ups, a matte effect, camera pans, multiple locations (in New York and New Jersey) and showed simultaneous action across multiple scenes.

I’m generally not a fan of colorizing black and white films, but recently one of the Lumière Brothers’ films was restored in full color and HD by Joaquim Campa. He used AI-powered software and there were frames interpolated to smooth the film (though the film’s speed remains unchanged). Here is the new version.

I like this “restored” version though film purists will say the original version (seen below) is the only version that should be seen. Considering that the actual “Bataille de boules de neige” (Snowball Fight) occurred in real-life color and that the brothers had no choice but to use black and white film and be silent, I imagine they would have been thrilled to see their film in color and with sound.

Watching these citizens pound each other and a passing cyclist with snowballs is a fun little moment from 1896 that doesn’t seem so different from our own time. Photography and cinema always change reality. Another French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, saw what the brothers had done but he took it beyond reality and created fantasies and special effects such as those in his film  “A Trip to the Moon” which in 1902 had many effects including footage in black and white but also scenes that had been “hand-colorized.”

Coming of Age

bildungsroman shirt
Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

Art in the Cinema

Art imitates life and sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes films imitate art.

Filmmaker Vugar Efendi put together a compilation of shots from films along with the paintings that inspired them.

You may have seen filmmakers pay homage to older films by imitating shots – the original Star Wars film has shots that echo a number of other films including John Ford’s The Searchers and the Stranger Things series on Netflix has lots of tributes to films from the 1980s that the filmmakers watch and loved.

Paintings may be less obvious. Not everyone would pick up on Jean-Luc Godard filming a shot based on a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. It is an old tradition. One referenced in Efendi’s supercut is from the 1927 silent film Metropolis.

L’empire des lumières influenced William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and La Robe du soir is alluded to in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight while Architecture au clair de Lune slips into Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Some instances are unexpected: Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy used in in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Sometimes the reference is not exact but a scene feels like it is “in the style of”a painter – such as the look of the Bates’s home in Hitchcock’s Psycho looking like a house from an Edward Hopper painting – but without the color or sunlight. (Wim Wenders used a much more literal recreation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in his film The End of Violence.)

I first saw these videos mentioned on the Slate website, but the three-part video has been posted in other places too.

Here are the pairings so that you can check you “art of the cinema” knowledge.