The talks on German Expressionist Cinema and Dance Theatre, served as a reminder of the importance of art and expression, writes Zeenab Aneez
Listening to writer and poet Sridala Swami speak about German expressionist cinema on the terrace of Goethe-Zentrum, Banjara Hills, you become slowly convinced of the influence of history and political climate on the art of the era, something that has been lost to us in recent times. The lecture was part of a workshop that also included another talk on German dance theatre by Anna Edlin, a student of theatre, media, and music and dance science in Germany. The event, the first of a series of lectures on various subjects, saw attendance by a small but heterogenous group of people from the city, most of whom took an active part in the discussion.
While Sridala focused on a historical movement dating back to over a hundred years, Anna spoke about a more recent art movement, one that challenged the notion of classicality in dance. Sridala began with an introduction to the Expressionist movement. Expressionism in Germany began in the early Twentieth century, on the eve of the First World War, extending to a wide range of arts like painting, theatre, dance, architecture and cinema.
German expressionist cinema
It was after the war, when the country had faced massive loss of life and was also at the receiving end of several punitive measures that Expressionism began to find voice in the cinema. As opposed to the Impressionists, who simply represented exactly what they saw, Expressionism worked on the principal that your emotional state can alter the world around you, as far as your subjective experience of the world goes. This feature was more than evident in the films which was characterised by dark themes, theatrical acting, looming figures, exaggerated contrast between light and shadow and dramatic score. The stories and narrative style of this dialectical cinema were born out of the political climate of the time. The fact that most of these films were made during the silent era of cinema, where the minimal dialogues were shown on screen rather than spoken, added to the drama.
Sridala made sure to show the attendees clips or images from the defining films of the time; The cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, the gambler and The student of Prague. All three films were psychological thrillers and had similar dystopic themes of mind control, manipulation and murder. The cabinet of Dr. Caligary for instance dealt with a psychiatrist who used hypnotism to control the actions of a somnambulist who he kept in a coffin. The story was co-incidentally written by two people who had just returned from the war. Sridala explained that if the scenes look vaguely familiar it is because of the large influence German Expressionism has had on the cinema of today. It is not too difficult to spot similar technique and framing in the films of Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton.
The second part of the lecture, delivered by Anna Edlin kept with a similar theme – that of responding and expressing your view of the world around you. Only this time it was in the form of German Dance Theatre.
Through the life of one of its major exponents Pina Bausch, Anna spoke about the emergence of the form and its rise to popularity. Pina Bausch challenged the strict rules of ballet and emerged to become one of Germany’s most famous dancers. Pina’s philosophy reflected that of the Expressionists in that she believed that strict structure is secondary to subjective responses.
The workshop ended with an interaction between the speakers and the audience, most of whom definitely left the venue feeling like they had learnt something new. More importantly, the workshop, both in content and form, served as a reminder of the importance of taking a critical look at art and popular culture of the time.